Speed cameras: Traffic enforcement or highway robbery?

Courtland Milloy
Columnist September 11, 2012

I confess: I enjoy driving fast.

Not reckless driving, just cruising at speeds more appropriate for road conditions than the posted speed limit sometimes permits. Pop the top on the old Solara, fire up the CD player and hit the open road. A new Mercedes ad calls it “feeling alive,” although the sensation can be just as good in any well-kept automobile.

Lately, though, some jurisdictions have ramped up efforts to kill that feeling — to actually steal the joy of driving altogether — by “getting people out of their cars,” as D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray (D) likes to say. And through the use of hyper-vigilant parking enforcement along with an explosion of red light and speed cameras, he’s drawn a hard line in the sand.

John Townsend, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, is girded for battle.

“When you look at plans for the future of transportation in the District, much of the focus is on making cars optional in the city,” he said. “To make more room for pedestrians and cyclists, they want to make less room for cars. But most people in the city still get to work by car, and I don’t see them having any options in the foreseeable future.”

In response to a growing backlash by motorists, the D.C. Council recently formed a “Safety-Focused Automated Traffic Enforcement Task Force.” According to the task force, which met Monday, District residents get roughly 25 percent of the speed camera tickets. Maryland commuters get about 50 percent while Virginians and other visitors to the city get the rest.

Of course, for some, even that’s not punitive enough.

“As I’m sure you’ve guessed, [the Washington Area Bicyclist Association] strongly supports the expansion of automated enforcement,” Shane Farthling, executive director of the WABA, wrote in a letter to the task force. “Understanding that there are both public safety and political considerations on the matter, we hope to see the automated enforcement program used in a manner to promote the greatest overall impact on roadway safety for vulnerable roadway users.”

Among the task force’s objectives is determining whether higher fines for speeding lead to improved driver compliance. There is much evidence to suggest that they do not. And yet, having raked in $66.7 million through the first three quarters of fiscal 2012 from speed and red light cameras, the city is gearing up to haul in an additional $86.2 million in 2013.

The economic pain caused by the high-tech crackdown cannot be overstated.

“Part of my job is to do magazine deliveries each week, and with such a low-paying position, I cannot afford to get any tickets so I am very careful how I drive,” Jonathan David Uy wrote to the task force. “How can I prove that I was not going over the limit? Do I go to court to say a new robot camera got it wrong? $125 is all the money in the world to me these days.”

Others complain that speed cameras don’t catch all traffic scofflaws.

“Many of the new residents ride bikes, but many of us older residents need to drive cars to get to doctor appointments, jobs outside the city and attend church,” wrote Laura Gardner. “While we older residents try to creep through the city to avoid the cameras that you, Mr. Mayor, plan to put all over the city, the new residents speed through red lights and stop signs on their bikes WITH IMPUNITY! NO TRAFFIC TICKET FOR THEM.”

In my travels, I see speed cameras do more harm than good. A recent drive along a relatively uncongested, three-lane stretch of the I-295 commuter route is a case in point.

Many of the motorists — including me — were doing what the District calls speeding: “11 to 15” miles per hour over the posted 50 mph limit. The fact is, we were moving at a reasonable and safe speed, what traffic engineers refer to as “going with the flow.”

Suddenly, the white light of a hidden speed camera flashed and traffic was thrown into turmoil. Some drivers abruptly changed lanes, hoping to put some other car between them and the camera. Even drivers who weren’t exceeding the speed limit panicked and slowed to a crawl, causing a chain reaction of urgent braking.

The road had been made dangerous not by the drivers but a speed camera. And the city gets to pocket a $125 fine — $250 if not paid within 30 days — from a driver whose only crime was to use common sense behind the wheel.

“Automated traffic enforcement” is what it’s called. Highway robbery is what it is.

To read previous columns by Courtland Milloy, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.

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