As readers of the Risk Factor know, blaming the computer for any and all technical glitches is a fairly regular and convenient excuse. One of the more unusual technical problems blamed on a computer was reported about a week plus ago by the WBAL-TV 11 News I-Team in Baltimore, Maryland.
Apparently, some 2,000 Baltimore red light camera traffic citations which require a police officer to swear that he or she has reviewed the photos as indeed showing a traffic violation had a slight problem. It seems that all the verification signatures on the citations issued were from a police officer who had died in a car accident last year.
WBAL-TV said the error was discovered when a retired police officer acquaintance of a driver who had received a $75 red light camera ticket on 12 January 2011 noticed the signature on the citation was from the police officer who he knew was deceased.
A Baltimore police spokesperson, WBAL-TV said:
"... blamed the problem on a computer glitch, which is the fault of the company that operates the camera system, and he said the problem has been rectified."
Exactly how the deceased officer's name ended up on the tickets wasn't fully explained, but Baltimore police insist that internal police documents show that a live officer reviewed and approved the citations. Legal experts say Baltimore may have difficulty enforcing the tickets if they are challenged in court, however.
What Baltimore could (or should) do is follow the lead of Edmonton Canada's Chief Crown Prosecutor Steven Bilodeau who decided late last month that all persons who had received speed on green camera tickets at city intersections since November 2009 are eligible for refunds. Some 140,000 tickets worth about C$13 million are involved.
According to this story published in the Edmonton Sun, a speed on green ticket coincidentally issued on 12 January 2011 indicated that that a car had gone through a city intersection at 143 km/h, which, the Crown prosecutor said, was "obviously wrong." This erroneous speeding ticket kicked off an investigation that resulted in the decision to dismiss all the speed on green tickets as a "matter of fairness," Crown Prosecutor Bilodeau said.
The Sun story says that the offending cameras would be pulled for at least a month, and that the cameras' problem could involve either hardware or software issues.
I can't find any update to this story, such as the confirmed cause of the glitch or when the cameras will be returned to operation. Anyone know?
I also haven't seen anything that indicates that Baltimore plans to drop all 2,000 tickets "as a matter of fairness," either. With a $150,000 at stake, I doubt the city will.
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.