Last week the Montgomery County, Maryland Council wanted to promote its plan to blitz the area with yet more speed cameras. For best effect, council members invited their top salesman, John Damskey, Director of the Montgomery County Police Department Traffic Division. The council made the right choice. The articulate Damskey has a look in his eyes that just says he wants to be the next police chief. The only way that will ever happen is to deliver exactly what the council wants, regardless of the truth.
“In December of 2008 we were asked to provide some statistics to show the benefit of the program,” Damskey said.
So he created some: First, a 22% reduction in speed at camera sites. This reflects the obvious phenomenon of people slamming on their brakes when approaching a camera zone. This frequently creates a backup where speeds are 10 MPH or more under the limit. But Damskey’s crown jewel was this amazing figure: a 53% reduction in fatalities in Montgomery County thanks solely to the speed cameras.
An impressive figure, until Councilman George Leventhal accidentally rained on Damskey’s parade.
“Captain Damskey, the statistic that you cited of a 50% reduction in fatalities certainly got my attention,” he gushed. “Is that in a one year period, or two years since the introduction of the program?”
George had all the right intentions. He obviously realized that the bare minimum for a statistical relevance would be one year of data. Since fatal accidents are the most rare, you really would want at least two years of numbers upon which to base any conclusion.
It turns out that Damskey was comparing the first few months of 2009 to the same period in 2008. In other words, he wasn’t doing an honest before/after comparison, he cherry picked six months worth of data with cameras in use to compare with another six month of “after” data. It was an after/after comparison where the numbers happened to look good.
It turns out that statistical time periods are the Achilles heel of Maryland photo radar presentations. In a must-read 2002 Weekly Standard article, investigative reporter Matt Labash came up with a similar question for Damskey’s colleagues in Howard County.
At a congressional hearing last summer, they were automated enforcement’s star witnesses. Wearing their gold-braided dress blues and wielding their Power Point displays, they proceeded to declare their three-year-old red-light camera program an unqualified success, boasting a reduction in collisions of between 18 percent and 44 percent at every intersection where a camera had been installed.
The statistics were impressive. Still, confused as to the time periods being monitored, I called Lt. Glenn Hansen to ask for clarification. “You’re right, it’s confusing,” said the media-friendly Hansen, who runs their program. “You’re a writer, maybe you can give us advice on how to do better in the future.” It turns out Hansen had no idea what the time periods were either, except that the times measured before and after installation of the camera were equal. But when I obtained accident statistics for all the county-road intersections where cameras had been placed, the numbers didn’t square with the ones presented at the congressional hearing.
Labash did a real before/after comparison and found that total accidents actually increased 16%. But let’s move along from that. Damskey has more to say, and you need to know Maryland law to understand the full impact of what he was trying to do. MGA Statutes §21–809(j) states:
If a contractor operates a speed monitoring system on behalf of Montgomery County, the contractor’s fee may not be contingent on the number of citations issued or paid.
Montgomery County does pay ACS a contingent fee of $16.25 for each citation issued. Damskey explained all the things that ACS does in return for all of that money:
- ACS owns the cameras
- ACS does all maintenance and repair
- ACS does site management
- ACS does IT services
- ACS does name and address acquisition
- ACS does initial review and all data entry
- ACS does payment processing
- ACS does customer service
- ACS does printing and mailing services
- ACS does site construction
- ACS does back office processing
What does Montgomery County do? It “manages” the program, which means in Damskey’s view that the county isn’t violating the law because managing is operating.
So the next time you’re pulled over for speeding in Montgomery County, be sure to tell the officer that you did not break state law because you were not operating the vehicle by Captain Damskey’s definition. In fact, the real operator was the friend in the back seat yelling that you needed to hurry up or you’d be late.
So how did the council rate Damskey’s performance?
“It was exactly what I was looking for,” Council Vice President Roger Berliner said.
Congratulations, you’re well on your way to becoming chief one day, Captain Damskey.