City workers have privacy fears as Atlanta plans to install cameras in some vehicles

Atlanta officials tout a plan to install 175 cameras in city-owned vehicles as a way to save taxpayers millions of dollars in accident claims while systematically improving the driving records and habits of workers.

But those who steer the cars and trucks worry the blinking red light on their dashboard is simply a way to spy on them.

The Atlanta City Council is expected Monday to vote on and likely approve a pilot program that would allow the city to activate DriveCams, which are designed to record up to 12 seconds of any major change in a car’s speed or direction.

City officials said the program, used as a training tool, would cut down on the incidents of careless or dangerous driving by eliminating texting, cutting back cellphone use and increasing safety and seatbelt use. It also can be used to monitor fuel efficiency.

“The program is designed to be a driver-training aid,” city Chief Financial Officer Jim Beard said. “The city has 3,600 vehicles. In order to help protect that property, reduce claims and help drivers drive better, we wanted some mechanism to review driving.”

Gina Pagnotta, president of the Professional Association of City Employees, has had several discussions with city leaders and understands their position that the cameras can be a useful tool — if used right.

“These are their vehicles, so this is not a big fight that the employees can win,” Pagnotta said. “But the union feels that they are infringing on our privacy. The employees are very uncomfortable — don’t like the idea of their privacy being invaded.”

City officials said the cameras, while always on, do not record and store everything and are not monitoring devices. No one is sitting in a room watching and listening to what drivers are doing.

“The goal is not to catch drivers doing things wrong, but to prevent anything from happening,” Deputy Chief Operating Officer Hans Utz said. “It allows us to have a perspective on driving habits so we can proactively provide training and resources.”

The cameras only start recording when there is a sudden change like heavy breaking, change in speed or swerving. At that point, the cameras will record the next 12 seconds and provide evidence and documentation to see who was at fault in accidents.

Since 2009, the number of accidents involving city vehicles has risen steadily while claims against the city remain high.

In 2009, the city paid out $840,971 in claims on 164 accidents. In 2010, it was $730,161 for 210 accidents. In 2011, the last year for which numbers were available, the city paid out $1.04 million related to 256 accidents. Most of the accidents were sideswipes and rear-end collisions.

“For every claim, you may have 20 incidents before you hit somebody,” Beard said. “If you stop the bad behavior, we can stop the claims. If they are texting when they had to slam on the breaks to avoid hitting something, then we can bring those drivers in and provide remedial driver training to correct that problem.”

Once the program is approved, the city will be on a 120-day trial plan to test the system. Cameras have been placed in vehicles used by the fire, watershed, public works and planning departments but have not been activated.

Although the program has not been approved yet, Pagnotta has fielded complaints from workers that some department managers are already using the cameras to discipline drivers.

“I have been told that no formal actions have taken place, but some informal training and coaching … has been occurring in the field in order to show the drivers how the system operates and what can and cannot be done using the system,” Beard said.

Councilman Alex Wan, co-chairman of the City Council finance committee, said although the legislation passed out of committee, there are still questions that have not been answered.

A California vendor hired by the city administration is overseeing the project for now. But if the city decides to fully implement the program, the contract should go out to bid, Wan said.

“After the pilot, there still needs to be a full-blown procurement process,” he said.

No costs have been associated with the program yet, and the city is not paying for the equipment during the trial period. But city officials and DriveCam documents show it costs $595 per camera, plus up to $210 to install it in a vehicle. Depending on the size of the vehicle, it could cost between $24 and $42 a month to monitor them, with additional costs added for GPS and fuel tracking.

“If people start talking about cost, what is the cost of one accident avoided or making sure that one of our guys goes home at night?” Beard said.

Pagnotta, whose public works truck has not been equipped with a camera yet, said at this point she would be happy with an equal distribution of the equipment between workers and bosses.

“If they are going to put DriveCams in our cars, we want them installed in the cars of leadership as well,” Pagnotta said. “The day it is installed in my truck is the day I will drive my personal vehicle.”