District’s holiday speed-camera photos may leave drivers feeling less jolly

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.

They won’t come from the latest deployment of nine new speed cameras, because until Dec. 21 those are still operating under a grace period — no tickets, just warnings — but the array of cameras already monitoring D.C. streets has gained attention.

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.”

Critics of the speed cameras and red-light cameras, AAA among them, say they have been deployed to make money. Their defenders, including D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier, say that if revenue is a byproduct of their efforts to get drivers to slow down, that’s just fine.

Lanier said the District “actually appreciates the AAA designation as a ‘Strict Enforcement Area’ ” because the attention encourages drivers to slow down.

“I find it astounding that AAA Mid-Atlantic would criticize a program that has been successful in reducing traffic deaths,” she said. “Additionally, we constantly receive requests from residents and council members for increased enforcement in their neighborhoods.”

The D.C. camera program issued 533,000 tickets and took in $43.1 million in fiscal 2010. In the first seven months of this fiscal year, it sent out 225,000 speeding and red-light tickets, taking in $30.3 million.

The AAA has ballyhooed a study showing that drivers generally were obeying the speed limit in the District. Done by the Howard University Transportation Research Center, the 2010 study showed that speeds had decreased at 64 percent of 174 locations and increased at 26 percent since 2006. They remained the same at the rest of the sites.

“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,” said Lon Anderson, another AAA advocate. “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.”

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says that speed cameras are being used in 107 jurisdictions nationwide and that 555 places use red-light cameras.

Maryland, Virginia and the District have red-light cameras.

The use of speed cameras is banned by law in Virginia, but they are used in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties. Prince George’s mailed out 30,500 speed camera tickets last month. Montgomery County netted more than $19 million from speed cameras in fiscal 2009, up from $7.5 million two years earlier.

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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