EDITORIAL: Speed-camera explosion

Public realizes photo-ticketing expansion is designed to raise revenue

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All around the nation’s capital, the use of robotic machines to dish out traffic tickets has surged. Starting next week, the District’s for-profit, Arizona-based vendor will begin mailing citations to unwary motorists from an additional two dozen hiding spots.

The public thinks this is all about the money, according to a WTOP radio Beltway Poll released last week. Two out of every three respondents from Virginia, Maryland and the District said they thought raking in the loot - not fostering public safety - is the primary motivation for these programs. It’s easy to see why they know that.

One of the city’s hottest new speed traps is on Interstate 395, where a Ford SUV hides behind a bridge to take snapshots of vehicles on their way to and from the Capitol building. On this particular stretch of highway, the speed limit is a dangerously low 40 mph, putting tourists at high risk of receiving a nasty surprise in their mailboxes.

Out-of-towners would never expect to see such a low speed limit on a freeway with six to eight lanes. Most states have adopted 50 mph as the lowest possible design speed for an urban freeway, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Applying a speed limit more fitting for a neighborhood road to a busy interstate is a gimmick meant to make driving 50 or 55 mph - the safe and appropriate speed for the conditions - a criminal act.

Criminalizing ordinary, harmless conduct is the key to a high-volume ticketing enterprise. In Prince George’s County, parking and automated speeding tickets are handled, appropriately enough, by the Revenue Authority, which expects a total haul of $55,968,000 by the end of the fiscal year. This reflects a doubling of income that will come from a boost in the number of speed vans from 55 to 72 and the number of red-light cameras from 25 to 50. The profitable prediction assumes that a full half of motorists will simply tear up the tickets received in the mail and throw them in the trash, as they did last year.

There can be some risk involved in nonpayment of citations in Maryland and the District, but not in Virginia. Citations in the Old Dominion are valid only if they are personally served, and cities like Alexandria aren’t likely to send cops door to door because that costs money. Alexandria is content to rake in the bulk of its revenue from the intersection of Gibbon and Patrick streets. Several years ago, city officials shortened the duration of the yellow light at the location from four seconds to three seconds - the minimum allowed under federal rules. With one second less warning before the light changes from yellow to red, motorists find themselves ticketed for misjudging the light by as little as a half-second.

Such brazen trickery makes the streets more hazardous. Shortening yellows and reducing speed limits to make a buck are the real criminal acts in this scandal. That’s what ought to be ticketed, not driving a few miles per hour over the limit.

The Washington Times

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