- The Washington Times - Monday, May 8, 2006

The Metropolitan Police Department collected a record $3.3 million in fines from its automated speed cameras in March — increasing the five-year-old program’s total revenue to more than $100 million.

The amount marks the first time that the program has collected more than $3 million in monthly revenues, even though only 2.2 percent of more than 3 million vehicles monitored in March were cited for speeding, according to police statistics.

The percentage was near 30 percent when the program began in 2001. The percentage in March was the second lowest for a month, with the lowest at 2 percent in February.

Critics of the program say the department is attempting to monitor more vehicles to catch more speeders as their percentages decrease.

Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said there are no plans to scale back the program, despite the steady decrease of motorists caught speeding.

“I would like to see [the program] expanded, or at least stay the same,” Chief Ramsey said. “Traffic enforcement isn’t something you do on occasion. It must be kept up.”

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

The speed-camera program is part of the District’s expanding automated traffic-enforcement strategy that has collected more than $138 million since 1999. The city’s 49 red-light cameras have generated more than $35 million, including $5.2 million last year.

The speed cameras have generated more than $103 million in fines since they were first deployed. Last year, police collected a record $28.9 million, despite briefly curtailing surveillance of the Anacostia Parkway in the summer, which caused revenue to drop sharply for several months. The revenue goes into the city’s general fund.

Chief Ramsey dismissed the likely backlash from the revenue increasing as the percentage of speeding motorists decreases.

“I believe in this because it enhances public safety,” he said. “I don’t care about revenue.”

There are no statistics that show the cameras decrease the number of traffic accidents or fatalities.

The number of fatalities in the District decreased from 69 in 2003 to 45 in 2004. However, the number increased last year to 49.

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 driver is moving, according to the police department.

John B. Townsend II, spokesman for AAA’s Mid-Atlantic region, questions the camera system and the posted speed limits in monitored areas.

“It sounds like a broken record on our part, but it’s a sad refrain for motorists,” he said. “We have a system that has incentives to the vendor.”

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.

Mr. Townsend said authorities should conduct formal studies to determine rational and reasonable speed limits, particularly for thoroughfares such as Interstate 295.

“I’m not justifying speeding, but most people are not woeful and wanton lawbreakers,” he said. “If everyone knows that the cameras are there and are still being [cited for] speeding, then obviously people are speeding for reasons other than having a lead foot.”

Last year, D.C. Council members Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat; Carol Schwartz, at-large Republican; and Sharon Ambrose, Ward 6 Democrat, introduced a bill calling for the city and Mayor Anthony A. Williams, a Democrat, to re-evaluate the speed limits on streets where cameras are used.

Kevin P. Morison, spokesman for Chief Ramsey, said technical problems with the cameras caused some tickets generated at the end of February not to be issued until early last month, which may have increased last month’s revenue total.

He echoed the chief’s assertion that revenue does not influence decisions concerning the program and that the department doesn’t purposely monitor more vehicles to offset decreasing numbers of speeding motorists.

“We don’t control how many vehicles pass through our enforcement zones,” Mr. Morison said. “It’s our job to enforce the speed limits. If our goal was to monitor more vehicles, we would be out on the main highways.”

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