A Plan to Fix Baltimore's Speed Cameras By Reversing the Incentives

A lesson in bad government contracting.

Image
SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

Baltimore's particular speed camera problem first came to light in 2012, when the Baltimore Sun revealed that at least seven of the city's 83 radar cameras, all of them owned and operated by Xerox State and Local Solutions, were prone to issuing fines to drivers who were not exceeding the speed limit. Xerox itself claimed it found only five cameras that didn't work, and shut them down. The city, meanwhile, downplayed the problem even further, claiming the error rate for Xerox speed cameras was "one-quarter of one percent." In short: Nothing to see here! 

Xerox's contract with Baltimore ended in 2012, but the deal is making headlines again thanks to a recent audit showing the company's cameras performed worse than even the Sun realized. The big takeaway? That error rate of "one-quarter of one percent"—promoted by city officials!—was actually upwards of 10 percent; 26 percent of issued citations were "questionable." 

The Sun, which first reported on the leaked audit last month, explains the ramifications: "The city issued roughly 700,000 speed camera tickets at $40 each in fiscal year 2012. If 10 percent were wrong, 70,000 would have wrongly been charged $2.8 million." And that's the low-end projection for how much Baltimore and Xerox may have bilked from citizens. 

But wait, it gets worse. The administration has also refused a request from the city council to officially release the audit, conducted by URS Corp. at a cost of $278,000, because doing so would violate a contract with Xerox that prohibits Baltimore from "referring or relating to, or reflecting, each party's internal considerations, discussions, analyses, and/or evaluations of issues raised during the settlement discussions."

Baltimore's speed camera fiasco does at least have something resembling a silver lining. In December 2013, the city announced it would no longer engage in revenue sharing with traffic camera vendors—a practice that Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley has decried as a "bounty" system. While Xerox got a cut of each fine its cameras issued, the decision actually resulted from problem cameras owned and operated by Brekford, the company Baltimore brought in to replace Xerox. 

But Maryland legislators aren't content to see Baltimore simply abandon the bounty system (which is supposedly illegal under state law anyway). They want to completely flip the incentives for camera operators: instead of paying companies for each citation they issue, pending legislation would require operators to be fined $1,000 every time they issue a citation in error. "This gives the vendors great incentive to make sure that they have done their homework," says Baltimore County Delegate Jon Cardin, the bill's sponsor.

You'd have to build a fine like that into any vendor contract, which could scare away companies (Xerox, Brekford) that have histories of fleecing drivers. A flat fee to vendors combined with penalties for faulty citations might even mean cities would be unable to find a company to operate speed cameras. Considering that traffic cameras are mostly for revenue generation (despite promising that the Xerox contract would reduce speeding in Baltimore, the annual haul from the cameras increased every year), that probably wouldn't be a bad thing. But insofar as there's a case for speed cameras, eradicating the incentive to wrongly ticket good drivers should clearly be part of it. 

Top image: shutterstock.com/tpfd

About the Author