Thursday, May 20, 2004

The District collected $2.3 million in fines from its automated speed cameras in April — the biggest revenue month in the program’s 21/2-year history.

But although revenue is up, there are signs that motorists are wising up to the cruiser-mounted cameras that take pictures of license plates as speeders race by. After three months of increases, the number of tickets issued dropped by about 15,000, to 65,077, which is also an indication that the drivers who are being ticketed are paying bigger fines.

“We hope to get [the numbers] down even further,” said Kevin P. Morison, spokesman for Metropolitan Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey.

The biggest moneymaking cameras for the District are on the limited stretches of highways under city jurisdiction, such as the outbound lanes of New York Avenue and the crosstown section of Interstate 295.

Police officials said the high-revenue zones aren’t being singled out for speed enforcement. The city’s six mobile, car-mounted cameras are rotated among about 20 zones, police said.

Five of those zones — the 2800 block of New York Avenue NE, two locations on the Anacostia Parkway, the 100 block of Michigan Avenue NE and the stationary camera in the 500 block of Florida Avenue NE — caught 40,911 speeding vehicles last month.

That accounts for more than 60 percent of the vehicles cited for speeding.

Mr. Morison said officials regularly evaluate the list of locations in the rotation, adding new zones or deleting old ones based on the number of violations in the specific zone.

“The cameras are moved once we have a substantial impact on speeding in a particular zone,” Mr. Morison said. “We generally stay at a location for a minimum of three months, sometimes longer.”

City officials long have cited “safer streets” as justification for the growing number of red-light and speed camera programs, first instituted in 2001.

“We’re starting to sound like a broken record, but the goal of the system is to modify behavior,” said Tony Bullock, spokesman for Mayor Anthony A. Williams. “We’re not making a secret of this thing. We post the locations on our Web site. The [cruisers] are visible. It’s not like we’re trying to hide in the bushes.”

Critics, however, contend that the program clearly is more focused on revenue than safety.

The Washington Times reported earlier this month that three of the city’s most dangerous intersections do not have any automated traffic-enforcement cameras.

The three intersections — 14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW, First Street and New York Avenue NW, and North Capitol Street and New York Avenue NW — had 34 hit-and-run accidents and 40 injury-producing accidents in 2001, the most recent year for which data are available, according to the D.C. Department of Transportation.

“We’ve got a heck of a lot of speeding motorists in this city,” said Lon Anderson, spokesman for AAA MidAtlantic. “There’s an epidemic of reckless drivers in the District. It’s so many speeders out there, it’s frightening.”

Mr. Anderson acknowledged that revenue might be driving the expansion of the programs.

“It’s clear that the more cameras you put in, the more money you make. And there are places that you can put cameras that will make a lot of money and won’t do much for safety,” he said.

The program’s most profitable zone — the 2800 block of New York Avenue NE — is a six-lane highway bordered by two service roads in a nonresidential area.

The zone produced 10,480 speeding citations, or about 16 percent of issued citations last month, according to Metropolitan Police Department statistics. At the program’s minimum fine, the zone generated at least $314,400 worth of fines last month.

Mr. Williams called the money from the cameras an “ancillary” benefit of regulating traffic safety. The District’s seven speed cameras — one stationary camera mounted on a pole and six mounted in cruisers — have generated more than $49 million in fines since the program’s implementation in July 2001.

The mayor’s $6.2 billion budget for fiscal 2005, approved Friday by the D.C. Council, adds six more cruisers equipped with photo-radar cameras. Officials expect the new cameras and cruisers, which will cost $6.4 million, to generate $7.2 million more annually in ticket revenue.

Affiliated Computer Services of Dallas holds the contract to manage the city’s automated traffic-enforcement program, splitting the fines with the city, which puts the revenue into the general fund.

“Our evaluation of the system is not ‘what does it cost?’ or ‘how much does it bring in?’ ” Mr. Morison said. “The additional vehicles give us an opportunity to respond to complaints from residents and consider new areas to place [cameras].”

Mr. Bullock said responsibility for the future direction of the program ultimately rests with the mayor, not the police chief.

“There are still plenty of speeders,” he said. “And the cameras are still going to be out there.”

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