Archived: AES cameras: Trap for speedsters or govt?

PETALING JAYA: The multi-million-ringgit Automated Enforcement System (AES) intended to nab traffic offenders has been touted as “the next big thing” by the government.

But since it was mooted nearly a decade ago, there have been enough questions plaguing it for us to wonder if it would become the government’s “next big blunder”, and more fodder for the opposition, instead.

AES is a system of cameras at accident-prone areas and traffic junctions which captures photos and videos of those who speed or run red lights. The system would then automatically issue summonses to traffic offenders within a fortnight.

More than 1,000 of these cameras are set to be installed at accident “blackspots” nationwide “soon”. Of those, 566 are speed cameras, 265 traffic light cameras, and 250 are mobile units.

Firstly, when exactly would the AES be fully up and running, catching road demons and issuing summonses?

Going by news reports quoting officials over the years, the deadline seems to be arbitrarily changed due to reasons only a privileged few may know.

A glaring contradiction was made recently when Deputy Transport Minister Abdul Rahim Bakri said that the AES would be used during the Hari Raya period starting Aug 12.

A week later, however, Transport Minister Kong Cho Ha, told reporters a different story. “We haven’t actually fixed a firm date.”

When pressed for a specific date, Kong sputtered: “Uh… this year. Before the end of this year.”

He said that no summonses have been issued since the AES was put on a trial run in over 10 undisclosed locations in the country.

Meanwhile, other reports quoted Road Transport Department (RTD) director-general Solah Mat Hassan as saying that the first summons must be issued by Sept 9.

Trial run

Aside from the conflicting statements from government officers, are there other, more grave problems or issues that the government expects from implementing the AES?

When posed with this question, Kong had firmly replied: “No.”

He elaborated that the cameras “have to undergo testing, certification and calibration and all that” by the Department of Standards.

Those dozen or so cameras that have already been installed now are still running “on trial”, said Kong, and are being tested to ensure that the AES is “flawless”.

The government needed the system to be “correctly inspected, certified to be in compliance with all the existing legal framework”.

Asked about fears that people might use false number plates, Kong dismissed them, saying: “Actually this camera is very sensitive, we can see the face of the driver even.”

Is what the government telling the people so far convincing and acceptable?

RTD itself had admitted that the AES could potentially anger the rakyat. A FAQ (frequently asked question) document produced by the RTD on its website admitted that one of the risks of implementing the AES was “public outcry” as the AES would “drastically change the driving attitudes in a short period”.

The document then noted: “However, the rakyat have the choice not to break the laws.”

So is it merely about rakyat’s “choice” when it comes to this million-dollar project that could potentially cause angry backlash to the Barisan Nasional government, especially since the 13th general election is around the corner?

A disaster waiting to happen

Critics of the AES have for sometime questioned whether the government knew what it was doing. Disgruntled industry players, civil society, and politicians have asked if it was indeed a fool-proof system that cannot be manipulated.

“The AES, as it stands, is simply a disaster waiting to happen. It will fail,” an industry source told FMT recently.

The source, who wished anonymity, warned that the government could expect “chaos at the courts” as road users are expected to challenge the validity of summonses issued to them.

“Kong’s explanation is weak. He says that the system is flawless. What happens if the windshield is tinted, he [driver] wears a cap or sunglasses, or if it is at night? What if it was not the owner driving the car? Vandalism is also going to be another problem.”

He said that this was a serious issue that the government must resolve if it does not want to be embarrassed.

“Let me ask the minister. If there were 30 cars bearing the same number plate as the car registered under your name, speeding at the same time at different highways, are you going to pay 30 summonses issued to you?”

Social Care Foundation chief and former Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) advisory panellist Robert Phang, who has been closely monitoring these developments, also asked: “Undoubtedly, we need such a system, it is a good way forward… but one thing is very important that we need to address – will this AES stand the test of the courts? Are we Malaysians really prepared for it?”

The AES project was mooted sometime in 2004, with the RTD visiting several countries to assess various systems. The Road Safety Masterplan 2006-2010, commissioned by the Cabinet, had recommended automatic electronic enforcement.

There was allegedly a clamour for a piece of the contract by several well-connected parties through a closed tender “request for proposal” process (though Kong also was previously quoted as saying that it was an open tender process).

Selective exercise

One of the seven companies (out of an original nine) involved in the tender, Tess Capital Sdn Bhd, had in 2010 cried foul and claimed to be sidelined despite “scoring higher in accuracy” during the tender process.

FMT had reported this, where Tess claimed that it lost despite being a “bona fide” company with locally-owned technology that was “as good as, if not better” than the system proposed by the contract winners.

Tess had even lodged a report with the MACC, alleging abuse of power and “manipulation” by the RTD in the tender evaluation exercise for the AES. It had accused RTD of being “selective and subjective” in its 2007 live demonstration exercise of the system.

(When Wangsa Maju MP Wee Choo Keong posed this case in Parliament, Minister in Prime Minister’s Department Nazri Abdul Aziz confirmed, late 2010, that MACC was investigating allegations of irregularities in the tender process.)

However, RTD and the Transport Ministry have firmly maintained that the tendering and live testing process was vigorous and robust. Kong has shot down calls for a review or a re-tender.

Subsequently, it was announced in December last year, the contract to implement the AES was awarded to two private companies – Beta Tegap Sdn Bhd and A.T.E.S. Sdn Bhd.

Beta Tegap’s technology partner is Redflex Traffic Systems from Australia while A.T.E.S. would be using the German Jenoptik Robot.

The contract, for an initial five years, is based on a build-operate-transfer deal, which means that the government would not be forking out a single sen. Everything is privately financed.

The installing and operation costs – estimated to be more than RM800 million – are to be borne by the two contractors, who are entitled to share the revenue collected from the fines.

It was reported that Beta Tegap holds the concession for the southern part of the peninsula, including Selangor, Kuala Lumpur, Negeri Sembilan, Malacca, Johor, up to Pahang, while ATES is responsible for the rest, including Sabah and Sarawak.

Crime prevention

While both companies are in charge of installing, operating and maintaining the cameras and control centres, RTD will be in charge of issuing the summonses.

Under a “three-tiered remuneration scheme”, Beta Tegap and A.T.E.S. will get to recoup their expenditures through a three-tiered system paid out from a pool of settled summonses:

Tier 1: RM16 for each of the first five million summonses issued (RM80 million).

Tier 2: 50% of the balance of the revenue collected beyond the first five million summonses, excluding amount taken in Tier 1 and subject to maximum of RM270 million. The government gets an equal amount.

Tier 3: 7.5% of the remaining revenue in the pool, excluding amounts received in the first two tiers. The government will get to keep the rest.

It is understood that initially there was a second phase of the AES, where radio-frequency identification computer chips were to be embedded in licence plates.

But that was scrapped after the proposal to revamp the number plate system received flak over concerns of privacy and costs. The government did not explain the reason for this change.

Traffic police were reportedly also unhappy over RTD “taking over their turf”. And while the RTD said that the AES will mostly be used for its crime prevention purposes, it is still unclear if the AES will come into conflict with the police’s own current speed traps.

Alongside questions of whether it actually works, the AES has naturally been facing allegations of cronyism from all sides, with several big names being bandied about.

A cover story by TheEdge in April pointed out that there have been allegations that Beta Tegap was linked to MCA, though both have denied any connection to the other.

MCA president Dr Chua Soi Lek said TheEdge was “both wrong and malicious”.

Money-making ‘diamond mine’

Weighing in on the case, PKR’s Selayang MP William Leong questioned whether there is link between Beta Tegap and MCA.

He said Dr Andreas Teoh and his mother Yap Kim See @ Yap Ai Lin were shareholders in Beta Tegap and the same Teoh and his father, Arianta Alikusno, are directors of Mediharta Sdn Bhd, a company providing security hologram labels for pharmaceutical products.

Leong drew the link by asking if it was “merely a coincidence” that the Transport Ministry and Health Ministry are both headed by MCA ministers.

TheEdge also reported that one of the directors of A.T.E.S., Chee Chwee Cheong, is also a founding partner of Ethos Consulting, further fuelling speculations.

Ethos is an influential boutique advisory house where Omar Mustapha is a partner.

Omar is a former special officer to Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, though a source told the weekly that Omar was not involved in the project.

There have also been those who said that the AES was simply a “money-making diamond mine”, with one industry source projecting at least RM1 billion in annual revenue for the government.

But officials quoted by TheEdge said that their projections of returns are not as high as the government’s. This was partly due to the stringent three tiered-system in their agreements as well as the unpredictable nature of the collection of summonses.

With accusations flying fast and furious, RTD has stressed that everything is in order. The AES, it said, aims to reduce accident rates, road fatalities and generally improve safety on roads.

There are 22 million registered vehicles in Malaysia, of which 15 million are active. Another million new vehicles are registered every year. Some 6,000 lives are reportedly lost in Malaysia anually as a result of road accidents, with an average of 18 to 19 deaths a day.

Road accident death rate

Speeding is the number one cause of traffic accidents. A study showed that for every one kmh increase in speed, there is a three percent increase in the incidence of injury and a five percent increase in the risk of a fatal crash.

Statistics show that speeding is the main traffic offence committed by motorists, with almost 60% to 70% falling under the category.

Aiming to change all that, the government said that the AES would greatly assist the current 4,000 RTD enforcement officers, and 20,000 traffic policemen.

At present, there is only a 25% to 40% chance of motorists getting caught using the current method of mobile camera units deployed by police personnel.

With the AES able to catch around 600 offenders daily, RTD aims to half Malaysia’s current road accident death rate of four individuals per 10,000 vehicles by 2015.

But several politicians and parliamentarians reasoned that educating drivers would not be a priority given that private profit-making bodies are operating the AES.

DAP’s secretary-general Lim Guan Eng expressed concerns that the companies might “abuse their power by issuing summons indiscriminately”.

PAS vice-president and Pokok Sena MP Mahfuz Omar asked: “Why didn’t the government buy the technology from Redflex and Robot directly, instead of going through these local companies?

“I’m sure there are some connections… the government must provide information on the background of these companies,” he said.

‘Enriching pockets of cronies?’

Mahfuz was among those who criticised the amendments to the Road Transport Act 1987, purportedly to facilitate the new AES. He even formed his own NGO to protest the issuing of summonses.

To date, about 90 countries have an AES in operation, including developed countries like the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia.

Among other benefits, the RTD said that the 24-hour system would help officers keep track of traffic offenders round the clock, rain or shine.

RTD has pointed out that in countries such as France, Germany, Kuwait and the UK, the system has apparently brought about a reduction of accident rates.

However, critics referred to reports of court cases where summonses had to be refunded, quoting reports which specifically mentioned the Robot and Redflex systems.

According to Road Safety Research Institute of Malaysia, the AES is in principle, good as it is sure, swift and severe. It would also reduce interaction, which in turn will reduce corruption.

But Consumers Association of Subang and Shah Alam Selangor (Cassa) president Jacob George seems unconvinced that the AES has been free of corruption or cronyism.

He said the government’s intention to “push” for the system without further consultation despite the outcry “shows that the government doesn’t care”.

“The secretive way the government appoints companies, the allegation of foul play… Why isn’t the government responding transparently? Are we telling people corruption is part and parcel of our big procurements?

“We call for tender accountability, but the government only gives us bits and pieces of information. Is it really concerned about public interest or just enriching the pockets of cronies?” asked George.

Another fact that RTD had mentioned in its FAQ is that in the future, other offences that the AES might help monitor include overtaking on double-line lanes, overtaking from the left, exceeding weight limits, queue-jumping and encroaching into bus lanes.

Though the same industry source cast doubts on the ability of the AES to perform these future “feats”, it all sounds good from the government’s end so far.

But without factoring in many of these lingering questions and concerns that have been posed, it remains to be seen if the AES will save our lives, or be a thorn in the ruling government’s side.