Drivers, beware: D.C. to aim more cameras at traffic scofflaws


One of the District's most profitable speed enforcement cameras on K Street. (Bill O'Leary/Washington Post)
September 10, 2013

Drivers, beware.

Over the next few months, District officials plan to more than double the number of traffic enforcement cameras on city streets — adding 132 units to their army of electronic eyes.

It is the biggest expansion since the District began using cameras to catch scofflaws more than a decade ago. And this time, it’s not just speeders and red-light runners who will be targeted. The city’s beefed-up automated force also will nab drivers who run stop signs and encroach on pedestrian crosswalks, and truckers who drive overweight trucks through neighborhoods where they are prohibited.

With this latest expansion, first reported by WRC (Channel 4), District officials will have 223 cameras at their disposal.

D.C. Police spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump would not say how much the additional equipment will cost.

A windfall from Washington’s speed camera

The installation of monitoring cameras has long raised ire among some drivers in the District, and in many parts of the country. In 2012, after racking up $425 in fines, D.C. restaurateur Geoff Tracy hired a sign waver to alert drivers to a speed camera in his neighborhood. The camera was eventually relocated — a move that Crump said was the result of construction in the area, not Tracy’s campaign.

“I hate them,” said Lisa Lee, a financial professional who lives in Columbia and works in the District. “They’re popping up everywhere. You can’t avoid them.”

Her co-worker Tim Hatton, who lives in the NoMa area of the District, said recent revelations about the work of the National Security Agency make him worry that more cameras mean less privacy.

“Given all this talk about security and privacy issues, I’m not sure this is going to be received very well,” he said of the expanded program.

Other people said they dislike the cameras because they believe a desire for revenue, not a concern for safety, prompts officials to install them.

The cameras have proven to be highly profitable. In fiscal 2012, traffic enforcement devices brought $84.9 million into the District’s coffers. Two speed cameras in the tiny Prince George’s County town of Landover Hills (population less than 2,000), produced $1.3 million in fines in their first year of operation.

Police and elected officials maintain that it’s not about the money. The cameras have made roadways and school zones safer, they said.

According to a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety of red-light camera use in cities including the District, there has been a 24 percent decrease in fatal crashes caused by running red lights. The study found a 17 percent decrease in fatal intersection crashes of all sorts.

A recent Washington Post poll found overwhelming support for cameras that catch drivers who run red lights or stop signs, with 63 percent of those polled backing the enforcement tactic. There was less support for speed cameras, with 53 percent of those polled saying they endorse their use. Support for speed cameras was higher among women, with 61 percent saying they backed their use, compared with 44 percent of men.

“Absolutely I’m for it,” said Garrett Hennigan, who lives in the District. “Anything to slow people down.”

D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) said he backs the program but is concerned that the fines are too high. In 2012, Wells and council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) convened a task force to look at the cost of tickets issued.

“The most important thing is public safety, not raising more money for the government,” Wells said. “You lose the legitimacy of the camera in the eyes of the public if it’s just about raising money.”

Cheh added that she, too, supports the use of automated cameras but wants to find a way to ensure that the fines aren’t excessive and that motorists are aware they are in use.

State laws vary regarding the use of enforcement cameras. The District and 13 states allow speed cameras. Twelve states have banned their use. Maryland’s law limits speed cameras to work zones and school zones. Virginia is among 29 states that have no law regarding speed cameras.

States are slightly more amenable to red-light cameras. The District and 21 states including Maryland, allow their use, while nine prohibit them. Virginia allows limited use of the tool. Twenty states have no law regarding their use.

John B. Townsend II, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said cameras can help cut down on violations, but said District officials should couple enhanced enforcement efforts with driver education programs.

“We’ve got this yen yen yen for enforcement and that arouses the suspicion that it’s about money,’’ he said. “But where’s the education phase?”

Crump said there will be an education program tied to camera expansion and that the police department will publish locations of the new cameras, as it has done in the past.

Scott Clement and Peyton M. Craighill of Capital Insight contributed to this report. Capital Insight is the independent polling group of Washington Post Media.

Lori Aratani writes about how people live, work and play in the D.C. region for The Post’s Transportation and Development team.
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