Some D.C. speeding fines to be reduced


Speed cameras capture motorists on I-395 near 2nd Street NW in Washington, D.C. (Daniel Britt/The Washington Post)
November 2, 2012

Motorists will soon be fined less for many speeding tickets, including those issued by automated cameras, Mayor Vincent C. Gray announced Friday. The tweaks come as D.C. streets have become safer for drivers and pedestrians, but also as unease has grown about the city’s increasing reliance on fine revenue.

As of Monday, what is now a $75 ticket for going up to 10 mph over the speed limit will become a $50 ticket, while the current $125 ticket for going 11 to 15 mph over will be reduced to $100. Tickets for 16 to 25 mph over will remain between $150 and $200, but drivers caught speeding more than 25 mph over the limit will pay a higher fine of $300.

Gray said the changes came after “lots of feedback” about the camera enforcement system, which generated $84.9 million for the city past fiscal year. The changes, he said, will “improve fairness while continuing to ensure and improve public safety.”

“We’ve got to have responsible traffic safety laws in the city — that is a substantial part of what this is about rather than . . . raising money,” Gray said.

Administration officials think the changes will mean about $23.6 million less in yearly city revenue. But last fiscal year, the cameras brought in $27.1 million more than projections that remain the same this fiscal year — meaning even with the lower fines, an additional $3.5 million in unbudgeted revenue is expected before the fiscal year ends Sept. 30. 

Gray said he wants to use that money to hire 100 additional police officers, bringing the force to 4,000 — a level the city has not seen since 2009. However, the D.C. Council would have to approve that spending.

The changes are modest, according to Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier. She noted that the only change affecting tickets generated by speed cameras is the reduction from $125 to $100 for people photographed driving 11 to 15 mph over the speed limit.

Lanier, a former head of the department’s vehicular homicide unit, defended keeping fines relatively high for those caught going much faster than that.

“I know the impact of speed,” she said. “If you’re traveling above 40 miles per hour on one of those streets where we have bicyclists and pedestrians, a $100 ticket, a $125 ticket, really shouldn’t feel so bad because you could have killed somebody if you hit them.”

The lowering of fines comes as the D.C. Council has moved to readjust the traffic enforcement regime amid the growing perception that the speeding tickets represent a regressive revenue grab rather than a public safety initiative.

Council members Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) have proposed more wholesale changes, including lowering fines for speeding violations up to 20 mph over the limit to $50 and dedicating half of camera revenue to traffic safety. Their legislative proposal has a higher price tag, complicating their efforts; Gray is lowering the fines by emergency rulemaking, which does not require public comment or a revenue analysis from the chief financial officer.

Wells, who has argued that more cameras will better promote safety than higher fines, said he is “pleased to see the mayor is listening” to people with concerns about the camera program. “Their message was clear: Speed cameras work to reduce speed and make streets safer, but the city must be smarter about setting fines,” he said.

Lanier said she did not think a $50 fine for drivers going 20 mph over the limit was appropriate.

“I think if you drop the fines down to $50 there’s absolutely no deterrent, and some people see that as a cost of doing business,” she said. “It’s not enough of a deterrent when you’re talking about speeds that are great enough to kill people on impact.”

But many of the cameras, program critics says, are in places where there is little or no pedestrian or bicycle traffic and where speed limits are set unusually low — such as the 45-mph Anacostia Freeway or Third Street Tunnel. And council aides challenged Lanier’s reasoning behind keeping fines high, noting that violations did not decrease after fines were raised recently.

Transportation director Terry Bellamy said engineers and police officials would closely examine speed limits across the city, which could lead to adjustments. City officials think that higher speed limits in some areas will lower fine revenue significantly. In other areas, Bellamy said, greater numbers of pedestrians or cyclists will lead to lower limits.

Gray said he is regularly approached by city residents — often pedestrians or cyclists — who want more cameras. But he said the city has no immediate plans to expand the program beyond the 46 cameras deployed.

“That doesn’t mean we won’t” in the future, he added.

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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