- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 30, 2003

District of Columbia officials have been very defensive recently. After this paper reported that the Automobile Association of America (AAA) had labeled D.C.’s red-light cameras as a “shakedown” and said that “It’s clear that money, and not law enforcement, is in the driver’s seat,” mayoral spokesman Tony Bullock derided the criticism as a mere crusade. Faced with evidence that traffic deaths are up this year despite the fact that the District has issued nearly a million camera-generated fines in four years, Metropolitan Police Chief Charles Ramsey retorted that, “That probably just goes to show you need more [cameras] and not less.” We side with AAA. The city is obviously more concerned with generating revenue than ensuring safety.

It reveals quite a bit about the D.C. government’s motives that they are willing to take on AAA, which is perhaps the most respected advocate for traffic safety in the country. Earlier this month, the motorists’ group released a major survey analyzing common distractions that create hazardous driving conditions. Making roads safer through such work is AAA’s raison d’etre. And in this recent local case, the facts back up AAA’s charge that the District’s program is a scam. To date, the city has collected more than $52 million from traffic-camera tickets. AAA points out that these violations bust drivers who barely miss yellow signals by a fraction of a second but don’t catch those who run red lights by a mile — the people who pose the real danger. The technology is not reliable either, as thousands of mistaken notices of violation are sent out every year. Entrapment is also common. In Bethesda, the yellow sequence of one light with a photo-enforcement camera was shortened by a second. It should be obvious that an increase in drivers slamming on their brakes to avoid photo tickets will increase rear-end collisions.

Abusive use of traffic cameras is not just another sad story about the D.C. government being run like a banana republic and residents being powerless to improve things. Washington’s hyper-aggressive harassment of motorists is leading a national movement, and serving as a test case to show other municipal governments how to squeeze money from commuters. On Aug. 14, Joseph Egan, executive director of the Philadelphia Parking Authority, cited Washington as an example when defending the new red-light-camera program in the City of Brotherly Shakedowns. Across the country, there are now more than 1,000 red-light camera systems — and more are in the works, as are speed cameras. While the murder rate of the nation’s capital is highest in the nation, it is shameful that the priority of the police seems to be photo traffic enforcement directed against people just trying to get to and from work every day.

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