- The Washington Times - Friday, January 14, 2005

We have to applaud the honesty of Mayor Tony Williams. As reported Wednesday in The Washington Times, the combined take of photo radar and red-light cameras in the District (since inception in 1999) is sure to hit the $100 million mark this year. Reflecting on this cash cow, Mr. Williams said the contract with Dallas-based Affiliated Computer Systems (ACS) needs to be renewed “to ensure the continued … collection of District revenues.” He made no mention of increasing road safety.

This $100 million number is the amount of fines paid. Penalties distributed but unpaid are much higher, and all figures soon will grow dramatically. Last week, Metropolitan Police Chief Charles Ramsey announced the installation of four more permanent traffic cameras (there currently is only one) and eight new mobile units. These new speed cameras won’t provide any public safety benefit and they aren’t intended to. The same applies to the District’s 39 red-light cameras. In many cases, these cameras actually make streets more dangerous.

The most extensive U.S. study of intersection photo enforcement — released in July by the North Carolina A&T; University’s Urban Transit Institute — found, “The results do not support the conventional wisdom expressed in recent literature and popular press that red-light cameras reduce accidents … Our findings are more pessimistic, finding no change in angle accidents and large increases in rear-end crashes and many other types of crashes relative to other intersections.”

There is some hope that area commuters will be rescued by legal challenges and growing proof that the systems are error-prone. Earlier this month, a North Carolina court found that a local camera program violated the state constitution. The Australian government has begun to pay $26 million in compensation to recipients of inaccurate photo-radar tickets. In Britain, an electrical engineer who developed a device to verify the calibration of speed cameras found the majority were off by as much as 25 percent.

Perhaps most chilling is that the District’s energetic traffic-camera program reminds us that the Metropolitan Police Department’s attention is not focused on real crime fighting. For example, the FBI’s 2004 Uniform Crime Reports listed 249 murders in Washington, ranking it the third-most murderous city in America. The year before the District had the highest murder rate of any big U.S. city, outgunning such rough towns as Detroit, Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia. Rape, assault, arson, robbery and car thefts have also trended up in recent years.

It is time for the D.C. government to get its priorities straight and put safety first. Shaking down commuters for cash won’t slow the atrocious numbers of widows, orphans and mothers with murdered children that are created in the city every year.

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