Washington planning more speed cameras

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Members of a D.C. Council task force on traffic fines agreed on Tuesday that speed limits and red-light cameras improve safety, but city officials need to show “a rational nexus” between hefty fines that can reach $150 and drivers’ willingness to change their behavior.

The panel assembled for the first time Tuesday to lay the groundwork for possible legislation by the task force’s co-chairpersons, council members Mary M. Cheh and Tommy Wells, as D.C. residents question whether the city is more concerned about public safety or drawing revenue from strategically placed traffic cameras.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray inserted a revenue provision in his fiscal 2013 budget that expands the use of automated traffic enforcement, such as cameras, to ticket speeders in tunnels, drivers who roll through stop signs and motorists who race through intersections to beat red lights. The measure was among a series of initiatives designed to ensure a balanced budget.

Motorists will see 16 to 24 new cameras, or two to three per ward, of each type during the coming year, said Lisa Sutter, program manager of automated traffic enforcement for the Metropolitan Police Department.

The mayor cited pedestrian safety and the ability to free up police officers for other duties as the reason for the expansion, but many residents are wondering if fines are commensurate with the infractions.

John B. Townsend II, a task force member from AAA Mid-Atlantic’s D.C. office, has accused the city government of being “addicted to revenue.”

Mr. Wells, Ward 6 Democrat, said Tuesday the city needs to be able to justify the amount of its fines, rather than say “we need to be able to close a budget gap.”

The panel kicked off its work with lengthy discussion about the purpose of traffic cameras and how they affect motorists’ habits. Many drivers know where they are and slow down just long enough to pass them, and some feel the cameras are placed in areas to snag those who cannot slow down fast enough when speed limits change, said Ms. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat.

MPD officials noted that fines from automated enforcement are the same as fines doled out by officers. But camera-generated tickets do not impose points on the driver’s license, because liability rests with the registered owner of the vehicle.

The discussion eventually funneled into one burning question, as Mr. Townsend put it: “Is it the amount of the fine or the ticket itself that’s modifying behavior?”

Ms. Cheh said the panel will explore whether it makes sense to grade the fines based on how far the motorists exceeded the speed limit or the potential amount of harm that could be inflicted by certain speeds or infractions.

They will also explore whether fine money should go into the general fund or be used for public safety initiatives. Yet, Ms. Cheh said, they must be careful not to create the impression that MPD or the District Department of Transportation is “feathering their own nests” by funneling revenue from their own enforcement into their agencies.

Mr. Townsend suggested that the panel look at the impact of automated enforcement in neighboring counties in Maryland and Virginia, noting the fines are lower there because of statewide compromises to pass speed-camera legislation.

Automated enforcement efforts are forcing states across the nation to weigh the noble cause of reducing death and injury on public roadways against the legality and legitimacy of the technology.

Last year, lawmakers in 28 states debated more than 100 bills regarding automated enforcement, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures.

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