Who watches the automated traffic watchmen?


Red light cameras and speed cameras can make things safer, but sometimes lack appropriate levels of oversight, experts say.  (EPA/DAVID MAXWELL)

Nassau County, N.Y., Executive Edward Mangano has announced that he would be dismissing $2.4 million in fines from speed cameras due to miscalibrations, Newsday reports.

Five cameras started operating on July 24 near summer schools as a test for the much larger deployment of over 50 speed cameras in school zones expected this fall. But one of the cameras for this test run was operating in an area where no summer school was in session, and others were set to enforce school speed zone limits at the wrong times.

Brian Nevin, a spokesperson for Mangano, said the errors appeared to be a result of miscommunication between the school districts and the company contracted to operate the system, American Traffic Solutions. The company did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

The county issued 30,108 valid citations at the five locations, but 9,807 citations were issued in error -- for a total of $784,560 in erroneous fines according to Nevin. Mangano decided to dismiss all the fines "in the order of fairness and because we weren't comfortable, obviously, with a 25 percent error rate," he says.

Nassau County isn't the only place that has struggled with oversight and quality control when it comes to automated traffic enforcement. A Chicago Tribune investigation found thousands of drivers in that city had been tagged with fines they didn't deserve in sudden spikes from red light cameras that city officials could not explain -- potentially caused by faulty equipment, human manipulation, or both.

Chicago city officials were apparently unaware of the issues until the Tribune's investigation brought them to their attention earlier this year. That's not entirely unusual though, according to Northwestern University associate dean Joseph Schofer.

"The standard pattern has been to bring in an outside contractor to put in the tech and to process the data -- and either the contractor or the municipality will issue the fines," he says. "Fundamentally, the issue is that few if any municipalities have the staff or the tech to do this on their own."

In some cases, that can become a 'who watches the watchmen' sort of problem: In the case of Chicago, some red light cameras that were issuing only one or two tickets a day would suddenly start issuing dozens per day -- but no one seems to have flagged it it as a potential problem.

"When you look at the data stream, it just came out and screamed at you," says Schofer, who helped the Tribune examine the information, which he argues begs the question of why no one noticed the anomalies. Anyone with basic programming skills, he believes, could have written a simple piece of code to raise an alarm when such unusual spikes occurred.

Chicago's system was previously maintained by the Redflex Traffic Systems, until Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) dismissed the company following reports of an alleged bribery scandal involving a one-time Chicago transportation department official. Redflex's former CEO has been indicted on federal charges in connection with the case.

A former Redflex software engineer who worked on the Chicago system told the Tribune that it lacked a computerized system for flagging when unusual spikes occurred, saying, "The only time we ever knew when a camera was down was when someone happened to notice, or if we got a phone call."

Redflex says it engages in "both reactive and daily proactive monitoring" of its red light systems, including "preventative maintenance both remotely and physically" on the systems. The company also maintains fixed speed camera setups that use embedded sensors or radar tracking to measure speeds in some areas.

The company says it verifies the accuracy of the speeding systems on a monthly basis with a LIDAR speed gun once a month, checking five consecutive vehicles in each lane being monitored to ensure the speed is within plus or minus one MPH of the system. "We are very proud of the accuracy of our system and the efficacy of our programs," Jody Ryan, director of marketing communications with the company told the Post via e-mail. "The national percentage of issued citations that are contested and end up in court is less than 1%. Out of that 1%, 99.5% of these contested tickets are upheld or dismissed."

To Schofer, the situation with Nassau's speed cameras sounds familiar in that "the data stream did not make sense, but there was nobody looking at the data stream to see that. There's a need for quality control."

In Nassau, the city does appear to have jumped into action much more quickly than in Chicago, where the problem reportedly continued for years. The cameras had only been up a month before Mangano announced the county was giving amnesty to all tickets originating from the speed cameras -- including valid citations -- and refunding fines that have already been paid. "The County Executive took immediate action upon learning of numerous violation errors take occurred during the summer school demonstration program," says Nevin.

Schofer worries that some cities and contractors are succumbing to "perverse incentives" when it comes to automated traffic cams -- more tickets mean more revenue, sometimes shared on a per fine basis between the private companies and municipalities.

It appears that automated traffic enforcement was likely a money-maker for Nassau even before the introduction of the new school speed zone cameras. In March, Mangano announced a "boot and tow" program that targeted those with three or more outstanding parking tickets or three outstanding red light camera tickets. "There are 8,004 vehicles that are considered to be Red Light Camera scofflaws," a press release for the program read, saying the rule-breakers owed a total of $2.8 million in unpaid fines.

Instead of focusing on revenues, Schofer says, cities should be prioritizing public safety. "What it means is you can have ubiquitous enforcement and you don't have to deploy personnel -- so you take your sworn officers and send them to chase bad guys," he explains. "What you hope and expect is the machine is going to be fair and effective."

In a way, cameras can be a democratizing technology. The automated systems won't be sweet talked out of giving a ticket by an influential local figure, or be prone to racially profiling drivers. But at the same time, they don't have the same sort of discretionary capabilities as a human officer, who might issue a warning rather than a citation to a harried mother racing home to take care of a sick child.

Anne McCartt, senior vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, says automated traffic enforcement is associated with better safety outcomes. Research done by the non-profit group shows that red light cameras are tied to fewer and less dangerous crashes at intersections, and speed cameras have been shown to be associated with lower incidence of speeding -- although the group has not yet studied if speed cameras are associated with a reduction in the frequency and intensity of crashes.

"When you enforce a traffic law -- and it's often well publicized enforcement --  you're going to get a reduction in people who are breaking the law," she says. "You expect that when people get more fines, behavior will change." And with speed and red light cameras, the probability can drastically change: "It goes from 5 percent chance of getting caught to a 95 percent chance of getting caught," for example.

Both Schofer and and McCartt agree that municipalities need to have a certain amount oversight and quality control over external contractors that run traffic enforcement cameras. "Usually a city contracts with a camera vendor, but still in most cases the program is set up so that the city makes the ultimate decision for a number of things," says McCartt. She says cities typically are and should be involved in deciding where the cameras are placed, reviewing citations, setting up an appeals process, and choosing the threshold for when the tickets should be issued. But the examples of Nassau County and Chicago suggest whatever oversight is in place is not always enough.

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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