Sunday, April 10, 2005

A new traffic enforcement camera in Northeast that was supposed to issue only warnings last month apparently had police backup, and motorists are beginning to pay for it.

Metropolitan Police announced plans in January to deploy a stationary photo-radar camera in the 100 block of Michigan Avenue NE that would issue only warnings between Feb. 18 and March 20.

But several drivers got speeding tickets in that area during that period and thought their fines were erroneous.

They weren’t.

“They got real tickets from a mobile camera that was stationed in the area, not from the fixed camera,” said D.C. police spokesman Kevin Morison. “We never said we weren’t going to continue enforcing in that area. We’ve been deploying there for a long time.”

In addition to becoming the site for a stationary photo-radar camera, the 100 block of Michigan Avenue NE also lies in one of the police department’s 65 enforcement zones for vehicle-based mobile radar cameras.

Mr. Morison said the stationary camera was photographing eastbound traffic while the mobile camera was capturing westbound traffic.

Some motorists said they thought placing the cameras so close together was questionable — especially because police press releases never indicated on which side of the street the stationary camera would be deployed.

“I’m not opposed to traffic calming measures, but I think when you omit information as they did in this case, it is kind of misleading to the public,” said Regina Page, a Northwest resident who received a $50 speeding ticket in the area Feb. 16, two days before police began issuing warnings to those caught by the stationary camera.

Miss Page said she initially assumed her speeding ticket was documented by the stationary camera and sent in error. She sent city officials a copy of the police press release and a news story specifying when the cameras would issue fines instead of warnings.

In the meantime, the $50 fine doubled. “It just kind of casts a negative light on [the program],” she said. “Is it really about safety or is it about profit?”

It wasn’t until after she got an explanation last week that Miss Page noticed the stationary camera was visible in one of the photographs the mobile camera had taken of her vehicle.

Another motorist said she was fined $100 for a Feb. 26 violation recorded by the mobile camera. The Columbia Heights woman, who did not want her name published, said she did not know whether to pay the fine or whether it had been issued by mistake.

“I was ready to pay it, and then I heard about the warning tickets,” the woman said. She learned only Thursday that the 100 block of Michigan Avenue NE was home to more than one speed camera.

“It’s definitely dodgy,” she said.

Police have operated a fleet of vehicle-based mobile photo-radar cameras since the summer of 2001. The first stationary photo-radar speeding unit was added in February 2004 in the 600 block of Florida Avenue NE, a 25-mph zone next to Gallaudet University.

Police said fewer than 2.4 percent of drivers were speeding in the 600 block of Florida Avenue in February, the lowest number in a year. The highest speed there in February was 68 mph. The highest speed since the camera was installed was 95 mph.

Since August 2001, more than 1.25 million notices of infraction have been mailed and about 928,000 paid, resulting in more than $70 million in fines.

Three other stationary speed cameras were activated March 21: in the 4700 block of MacArthur Boulevard NW, the 5400 block of 16th Street NW and the 2800 block of Benning Road NE.

None of those locations overlaps an existing photo-radar enforcement zone.

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