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All Opinions Are Local
Posted at 12:00 PM ET, 11/28/2011

A traffic safety formula: More cameras, lower fines

An article in The Post last week should make everyone pause and ponder a strangely dismissive attitude toward theft that we see from national advocacy groups and Post retail writers. It said:

When cruising through the shelves of District stores after Thanksgiving, most shoppers give thanks for the plentiful holiday gift choices. They are less likely to be thankful later when they are arrested for shoplifting. ...
The American Mall-Goers Association cautions its members seeking information on shopping in Washington that the District is a “Strict Enforcement Area” for shoplifting. “That’s a modern-day parlance for thief trap,” said AMGA’s Jane R. Citystart II. “By cruising the aisles this weekend, you’re likely to shoplift and to get arrested.”

This phrasing is very odd. It’s as if the author of the article and AMGA assume that people can’t help shoplifting, and that it’s just not possible to find any gifts for the holidays without being a criminal. But it is entirely possible. Just don’t break the law.

The above is not, as you might have guessed, what The Post article said. But it said the exact same thing, only substituting the act of speeding for shoplifting. Ashley Halsey III wrote in the Nov. 24 Metro article “In the “New speed cameras resume dispute over purpose”:

When zipping through the near-vacant streets of the District on Thanksgiving, most drivers give thanks for the lack of traffic. They are less likely to be thankful later when they get a speeding ticket in the mail.
AAA cautions its members seeking information on traveling to Washington that the District is a “Strict Enforcement Area” for speeding. “That’s a modern-day parlance for speed trap,” said AAA’s John B. Townsend II. “By zipping through town this weekend, you’re likely to speed and to get a ticket.”

Nowhere does the article note a simple but extremely important fact: If you don’t break the law, you won’t get a ticket. The Metropolitan Police Department argues that they only place the cameras in areas where there’s greater danger to drivers, pedestrians or cyclists. AAA doesn’t think that’s true.

We need more traffic cameras, not fewer, and we should place them in the real danger spots. The District is getting nine new permanent cameras, but the MPD has been trying to bring in a more comprehensive system for over a year. There would be mobile cameras that it could deploy temporarily at high-danger spots, and cameras to catch box-blocking or failing to yield to pedestrians.

A year ago, MPD’s Lisa Sutter told the Pedestrian Advisory Council that the camera program was waiting to go through the procurement process. In February, she told John Hendel the same thing. What’s the holdup?

Cameras meaningfully reduce fatal crashes, catch unsafe behavior, and even bring in less money than anticipated because they change behavior.

I drove Connecticut Avenue to and from Montgomery County for Thanksgiving, and there wasn’t much speeding, especially in Chevy Chase and Kensington, where everyone knows there are cameras.

The only problem with Montgomery’s cameras is that people know they only write tickets for driving more than 12 mph over the speed limit. Therefore, many people confidently set the cruise control for 40 in the 30 mph zone. What speed does Maryland want you to drive there — 30 or 40?

AAA’s Lon Anderson told Halsey:

One would think that traffic safety in the city must be going south with this infusion of new camera sites or that the city’s coffers desperately need replenishing. So if traffic safety isn’t the issue, we must conclude that the city is more concerned that the $43 million netted last fiscal year in automated speeding enforcement was insufficient. If they are for safety, we applaud the city. But if, perchance, they are for revenue, then shame on them.

I can agree with AAA’s Lon Anderson on one thing: Cameras shouldn’t be a revenue grab. In fact, criminal justice science suggests that cameras should carry much lower fines. When we increase the chance of catching lawbreakers, we don’t need such high penalties. Just as a 5 cent fee for a plastic bag was enough to significantly change behavior, might a $20 or even $10 ticket stop speeding or red light running if drivers knew they’re sure to get caught?

This would be especially fair for box-blocking cameras. When we discuss them, many drivers worry that they’ll inadvertently get caught blocking the box if they enter an intersection expecting room on the other side, but suddenly find traffic stopping. Many drivers abuse this by moving into intersections even when there’s stopped traffic on the far side, but it’s true that from time to time the unexpected happens and even a well-behaving driver can get stuck.

Instead of levying a high fine and expecting drivers to contest tickets they think are unfair, just set the fine low, like $10. If you get stuck blocking the box, you did mess up a bit, so pay the fee that’s less than the cost of most parking garages anyway. It will only really start hitting people’s pocketbooks when they drive in a way that frequently creates box-blocking. Those drivers need to reexamine their actions.

How about it, AAA? Would you join me in lobbying for a D.C. Council bill to speed up implementation of a number of box-blocking cameras, provided that the fines are set low?

David Alpert is founder and editor of Greater Greater Washington. The Local Blog Network is a group of bloggers from around the D.C. region who have agreed to make regular contributions to All Opinions Are Local.

By  |  12:00 PM ET, 11/28/2011

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