- The Washington Times - Friday, May 3, 2002

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says the District's photo-radar cameras are working to slow down motorists in the city.

The insurance institute, based in Arlington, released a report yesterday on its study of average travel speeds on seven roads in the city. The roads were surveyed twice, once before the photo-radar program began and again six months after.

Eight roads in Baltimore where photo-radar is not enforced were also measured as a comparison.

After the cameras were installed, the number of D.C. motorists exceeding the speed limit by 10 mph or more dropped by between 38 percent to as much as 89 percent on the seven tested roads, according to the study.

Road speeds in excess of 10 mph over the speed limit in Baltimore "stayed the same or increased slightly."

"It is a very clear finding. It's an across-the-board benefit for the District's camera program," said the institute's senior transportation engineer, Richard Retting.

Mr. Retting said the specific benefits "are the reductions in speeding violations on city streets."

But the report does not cite any specific findings that the cameras have reduced the number of accidents in the city.

"Our study was limited to looking at the reductions in speeding," Mr. Retting said. "Accident data will be part of a long-term study. … There will be a long-term follow-up in the future."

Metropolitan Police Department officials, who have been enthusiastic supporters of the District's expanding electronic law enforcement programs, have said the real benefits of the traffic cameras will become apparent over the long term, when they expect the statistics to show fewer accidents.

The insurance institute is an independent, nonprofit oganization, supported by 72 insurance companies across the country.

Critics of the District and other jurisdictions around the country experimenting with the technology have said the real motivation for the surveillance programs isn't safety, it's money.

One powerful opponent of government surveillance, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Texas Republican, was skeptical of the report because the insurance companies that paid for the study benefit from increased numbers of traffic tickets.

"Each time a point is assessed to a license, the insurance company can raise the driver's rate and [its own] profit," said Mr. Armey's spokesman, Richard Diamond, in an e-mail to The Washington Times.

But D.C. police "have never assessed points for our automated traffic cameras," said police spokesman Kevin Morison.

Maria Jackson, a spokeswoman for the local corporate office for State Farm Insurance Co., said, "Any ticket received by automated traffic systems are treated the same as a traditional moving violation."

But Dave Hurst, spokesman for State Farm's national corporate office, said the insurance company only looks at tickets when assessing new customers.

Mr. Armey also questions the objectiveness of Mr. Retting.

Mr. Retting was at one time a New York transportation official. He is often credited with bringing red-light camera enforcement to that state and subsequently to other areas of the United States.

While insurance companies like State Farm have endorsed red-light cameras as a safety measure, almost none have endorsed photo-radar, Mr. Hurst said.

The District has sent out 251,474 tickets since the program expanded last summer. Of that number, 142,328 motorists have paid the fines.

The District issued only about 10,000 tickets in all of 2000.

In the original discussions of the photo-radar program expansion, city officials estimated the six new cameras would issue 80,000 tickets during the first year and collect $11 million in fines a percentage of which would go to the private firm contracted to operate the systems.

After only seven months, the city is on the brink of topping and surpassing that $11 million estimate.

The city's cut of the fine revenue through March is $6,350,165. The rest has gone to Dallas-based Affiliated Computer Services, which earned $29 for each ticket paid under its original contract with the city.

The city, responding to criticism that the contract encouraged ACS to maximize the numbers of tickets issued rather than work with officials to make streets safer, reworked the contract in April.

A flat-fee contract was signed on April 24, Mr. Morison said.

D.C. traffic coordinator Lt. Patrick Burke said in the report that the goal for automated traffic enforcement "isn't to ticket motorists." Lt. Burke said the District has put up more than 48 signs throughout the city to alert motorists to the cameras, five of which are rotated to sites around the city. One of the cameras is stationary.

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