Monday, February 2, 2004

The District has collected more than $66 million in fines from its automated traffic-enforcement program since installing red-light cameras in 1999 and speeding cameras in 2001.

Fines from the red-light cameras, which are posted at 39 intersections around the city, have generated more than $24.5 million since they were first set up in August 1999. Fines from the speeding, or photo-radar, cameras have generated more than $41.6 million since they were first implemented in August 2001.

Metropolitan police and city officials have long said that safety, not revenue, drives the District’s automated traffic enforcement, which they say has helped them create safer streets with less manpower.

“With the technology we have now, it’s no longer necessary to pull over [speeding motorists] one by one,” Metropolitan Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said in a recent interview. “It’s allowed us to effectively reduce speeding without having to occupy officers.”

According to police statistics, the red-light cameras are issuing about 22,800 fewer citations a month than they did when they were first installed in 1999. In addition, about 5.4 percent of the nearly 1 million vehicles monitored by photo-radar cameras last month were speeding, compared with 25.5 percent when the city began issuing citations based on photo-radar in 2001.

While showing that fewer vehicles are being photographed running red lights or speeding, the police statistics don’t necessarily indicate whether automated traffic enforcement has reduced the number of traffic accidents, traffic fatalities or otherwise made city streets safer.

“We don’t have any substantial statistics of crashes predating the use of the cameras, so we can’t draw a direct [correlation] between cameras and number of crashes,” said Kevin P. Morison, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Police Department.

However, Mr. Morison said that traffic deaths attributable to speed are on the decline.

“Preliminary investigations by our crash unit show that traffic fatalities in which speed is identified as the primary cause have steadily declined [since the cameras were implemented],” he said. “In 2001, 39 of 71 deaths were attributed to speed; in 2002, 30 of 50. Last year, only 21 of 69 were caused by speed.”

Over the past 10 years, D.C. traffic fatalities have fluctuated between a high of 72 in 1994 and a low of 47 in 1999, according to police statistics.

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams in September 2002 said he wanted to expand the use of automated traffic cameras because the city needed the money.

“The cameras are about safety and revenue, and the way not to pay that tax is to not be speeding,” the Democratic mayor said at a news conference.

But Mr. Morison said that city officials’ “motivation [for using the cameras] is and always has been safety, whether some people choose to believe that or not.”

D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson has proposed legislation that would direct revenue from automated traffic enforcement to the Highway Trust Fund for road repairs and highway improvements.

The Affiliated Computer Services of Dallas manages the city’s automated traffic-enforcement program and splits the fines with the District, which deposits the revenue into the general fund.

Mr. Mendelson, at-large Democrat, also has called for Mr. Williams to evaluate the fairness of speed limits on roads where speed cameras are used.

Meanwhile, city attorneys Thomas Ruffin Jr. and Horace L. Bradshaw Jr. are appealing a judge’s ruling against their lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the automated traffic-enforcement program. D.C. Superior Court Judge Melvin Wright ruled June 12 that the traffic cameras are constitutional and benefit public safety.

“What these cameras do is allow as many people as possible to be ticketed,” Mr. Ruffin says. “I am against the program because it is not about safety, it’s about profitability.”

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