- The Washington Times - Monday, February 5, 2007

The Metropolitan Police Department collected nearly $31 million in fines from its automated speed cameras in 2006 — the most lucrative year in the program’s six-year history.

The program generated $30.9 million last year, exceeding the previous highest annual total of $28.9 million, set in 2005. The record amount increases the program’s total collected revenue to more than $125 million.

Revenue from the cameras has been stable, though police officials say the percentage of speeding motorists has decreased sharply since the program began in July 2001.

Police say that 1.9 percent of the 1.7 million vehicles monitored in the District were caught speeding in December. By comparison, 30.9 percent of monitored vehicles were caught speeding during the inaugural month of the program.

Lt. Byron Hope, safety coordinator for the department’s traffic-safety division, couldn’t explain why revenue from the cameras continues to increase while the percentage of speeding motorists decreases. He surmised more violators are paying their fines as the public’s attitude toward the cameras shifts.

“It was once a ‘man vs. machine’ perception about the cameras with the public,” Lt. Hope said. “But industrywide, it’s become more accepted as more people learn about the program from the information we distribute and put on the Web site.”

But John B. Townsend II, spokesman for AAA’s Mid-Atlantic region, said public opinion of the cameras is negative.

Citing the organization’s recent biennial motorists’ poll, Mr. Townsend said 47 percent of motorists in the region think the cameras’ main purpose is to raise money. Only 24 percent of those polled think the cameras make streets safer.

AAA, the country’s largest automobile-owner group, in 2005 designated the District a “strict-enforcement area” — the first time in the organization’s 107-year history that an entire city has received such a distinction.

“The District has one of the most strict programs, not just in the region, but the entire nation — and perhaps in the entire Western Hemisphere,” Mr. Townsend said. “We will continue to designate the District as a strict-enforcement zone. The public needs, and has a right, to know just how tough the District is.”

The annual amount of collected revenue has increased steadily since 2001, culminating with the record total last year. The city’s 49 red-light cameras have generated $39.8 million since their inception in August 1999.

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, the police department said. The collected revenue from automated traffic enforcement goes into the city’s general fund.

Though police do not have statistics showing a correlation between the automated-enforcement program and a reduction in traffic deaths or crashes, fatalities have decreased. There were 43 deaths last year, the lowest total in 12 years and down from 72 in 2001, when the speed cameras were implemented.

Former Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey during his tenure championed the cameras as an effective tool in reducing the number of speeders and red-light runners. Critics contended that the city increased the number of monitored locations to maintain revenue as the number of speeding motorists decreased.

The program began with six cruisers outfitted with cameras. Police now have 12 camera-equipped vehicles rotating through nearly 80 enforcement zones and 10 cameras at fixed locations. The number of cameras has not increased since October 2005.

Acting Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier told The Washington Times in December that she favors expanding the red-light and speed-camera programs.

Lt. Hope said Chief Lanier hasn’t decided on the program’s next move.

“Overall, [the department] is still very pleased with the program,” Lt. Hope said. “The incoming chief is still getting crash-data analyses and looking over it to see how [cameras] can further benefit the city.”

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