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D.C. cameras hit Maryland drivers hardest

- The Washington Times - Monday, March 27, 2006

Maryland drivers receive the bulk of the citations every month from the District's automated traffic-enforcement system, which has generated more than $135 million in fines since 1999.

More than 64 percent of drivers cited last month were from Maryland, as the District's automated speed-enforcement program collected $2.8 million in fines, statistics compiled by the Metropolitan Police Department show.

About 20 percent of violators were from the District, while drivers from Virginia made up 9 percent of the total, statistics show. Drivers from other states made up about 7 percent of the violators.

Meanwhile, the percentage of speeding motorists is the lowest in the program's history. Statistics show that 2 percent of the 2,735,983 motorists monitored in the District were caught speeding last month — the lowest percentage since the speed cameras were introduced in 2001.

Metropolitan Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said commuters and out-of-towners are not disproportionately cited.

"Maryland drivers are not targeted — it is what it is," Chief Ramsey said. "All people have to obey our laws. Automated systems don't discriminate."

John B. Townsend II, a spokesman for AAA's Mid-Atlantic region, disagreed, saying the program "smacks of deliberately targeting Maryland commuters."

"It does indeed discriminate, because most of the major commuter routes are targeted," Mr. Townsend said. "While we agree that automated enforcement is a viable approach to curbing speeding, more equity is needed."

A ticket for a red-light violation in the District carries a $75 fine, and speeding violations can cost as much as $200, depending on how fast the motorist is driving, according to the police department.

Since the program's inception, the District has collected an average of $1.83 for each of the 54,708,779 vehicles that have passed through the zones.

Motorists who don't live in the District routinely receive most of the speeding tickets — particularly Maryland drivers, who account for about 55 percent to 65 percent of violations every month.

"When 65 percent of those citations are from a particular jurisdiction, it creates in the public mind the notion of a carefully crafted commuter tax," Mr. Townsend said. "Marylanders are at the mercy of the city."

Of the 34 zones monitored by speeding cameras last month, 11 were located near New York Avenue Northeast, the Anacostia Freeway or the D.C.-Maryland border — routes used primarily by commuters.

A stationary camera in the 600 block of New York Avenue Northeast — activated in October — generated the most citations last month, catching more than 12,000 violators. At the minimum fine of $30, the location generated at least $360,000 last month.

In November, AAA designated the District as a "strict enforcement area" — the first time in the organization's 105-year history that an entire city received the label.

Speed cameras have generated $99.9 million in fines since August 2001, including a record $28.9 million last year. Red-light cameras fines have totaled more than $35 million since 1999.

Officials have already collected more than $5 million in fines from the speed cameras so far this year.

At that rate, the program is on pace to bring in more than $30 million this year, which would easily surpass last year's record total of $28.9 million.

The program, which began with six cruisers outfitted with cameras, now has 12 camera-equipped vehicles rotating through nearly 80 enforcement zones and 10 cameras at fixed locations.

There are 49 red-light cameras at intersections in the District.

The department and city officials have maintained that safety, not revenue, drives the decisions concerning the program and that city officials have minimal influence in determining enforcement zones.

The percent of speeding motorists has steadily declined since the speed-camera program began in July 2001, when about 30 percent of monitored vehicles were traveling above the speed limit.

And there has been a 73.2 percent reduction in red-light runners since those cameras were implemented in 1999, according to police statistics.

Police do not have any statistics showing a correlation between the automated enforcement program and traffic deaths or crashes.

Traffic fatalities in the District last year increased to 49, up from 45 the previous year, according to police statistics.

Chief Ramsey said he is pleased with the speed-camera program's progression. The steady decline in speeding motorists, not revenue, is the mark of the cameras' success, he said.

However, the chief admitted he wasn't sure whether the cameras permanently alter driving habits or if motorists merely clean up their acts while within one of the city's enforcement zones.

"I would like to think behavior has changed [because of the cameras], but I don't think you ever really know," Chief Ramsey said. "But the numbers are impressive, so something is there making people change driving habits and become more careful and obedient of the law."