Single District speed camera: 116,734 tickets worth $11.6 million

If you lined them all up head to toe, they would stretch from the White House to south of Richmond.

They could fill every seat in FedEx Field and Verizon Center and still leave people out in the cold.

That’s how many people got a traffic ticket from a single speed camera on New York Avenue in 23 months.

Tickets issued: 116,734.

Fines levied: $11.6 million.

Where the most traffic citations have been issued

City sympathy for angry drivers: zero.

“We believe we have made an impact,” said Gwendolyn Crump, spokeswoman for the D.C. police. “There have been 16 fatalities in 2012, compared to 28 at this time last year, for a 43 percent reduction of traffic fatalities. There is great value in slowing drivers down not only for their own safety, but also for safety of all other traveling parties.”

Cameras that spew out tickets to errant drivers have been a game changer in the District and 13 states, which use them to nab speeders. In the District and 24 states, cameras are also used to snare red-light runners. They generate far more revenue than even a legion of police officers sitting beside the road could hope for, raising anger among some people who say they are more about money than safety.

“Some say this may be a backdoor commuter tax,” said John B. Townsend II of AAA, alluding to the fact that suburbanites do not pay wage taxes in the District.

“We at AAA don’t subscribe to that theory, but it’s a sneaking suspicion among motorists, and it’s growing,” said Townsend, who used a Freedom of Information Act request to get data from the District on just how many tickets — and how much money — its top 10 speed cameras produced.

Speeding in America is personified by the reckless young kid in a fast car, but its true face is that of the soccer mom, plumber on a house call or white-collar driver late to work, to whom a 10 or 15 or even 20 mph bump above the posted limit seems almost a God-given right.

It’s common wisdom that police don’t write tickets unless the radar gun shows 10 miles above the limit. Some drivers get angry if cameras cut less slack, and they don’t think their just-over-the-limit speeding is very dangerous.

That’s balderdash, the safety advocates say.

“Most of the fatalities from speed crashes come on secondary and tertiary roads,” said David Kelly, a former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration who now leads the National Coalition for Safer Roads. “You’re talking about guys who are doing 50 in a 30 mph zone. There’s actually a science that goes behind speed limits, and the formulas have been tried and tested for decades.”

After declining for several years, the number of road fatalities in the United States may bump up slightly this year, if preliminary data prove correct. In 2010, the latest year from which the count has been finalized, 10,530 people were killed in speed-related crashes. That’s almost one-third of all deaths.

“Red-light and speed cameras have been proven repeatedly to save lives and reduce injuries,” said Jonathan Adkins, deputy executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association. “They should be used in areas where there have been crashes and injuries and not based on revenue potential. Anyone who has traveled in the District knows that red-light running and speeding are dangerous threats to all road users. Cameras are an important part of the solution.”

The District’s biggest moneymaking speed camera in a 23-month period ending in August is the one on New York Avenue between Florida Avenue and the new Ninth Street overpass, which produced $11.6 million it tickets. The camera spewed out 60,241 tickets, worth $6.2 million, in the previous fiscal year.

But its jackpot potential was eventually eclipsed by a pair of cameras installed on D.C. 295, which runs just east of the Anacostia River.

The cameras — one catching southbound traffic and the other north — are on 295 just north of where it intersects with the Capital Beltway and the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

Between Oct. 1 of last year and Aug. 31 of this year, the two cameras produced 161,399 tickets, with a face value of almost $15.9 million.

“Most drivers mistakenly assume D.C. 295 is an interstate highway or a U.S. highway, and they cruise along at what traffic engineers call the 85th percentile speed, which is the speed that 85 percent of the drivers on that freeway consider as the maximum safe speed for that location,” said AAA’s Townsend. “In fact, it is the only numbered route in the District that isn’t an interstate or U.S. highway. And drivers who aren’t aware of that are paying the price for that.”

The productive D.C. 295 cameras helped make fiscal 2012 a year of frustration for drivers who don’t like getting tickets and a lucrative year for the city tax coffers. The city has 47 red-light cameras and 46 speed cameras. Of the speed cameras, 10 are at fixed locations, 15 are portable and 21 are installed on police vehicles.

The information Townsend obtained, which covered all of fiscal 2011 and the first 11 months of fiscal 2012 ending Sept. 30, showed that the top 10 speed camera locations caught 423,783 speeders and issued tickets worth $41.6 million.

Overall, the city raked in $178.4 million in traffic fines in the last fiscal year, according to the most recent cash estimates from city financial officials. That’s a 32 percent jump from the previous year’s take and a 62 percent jump from two years ago.

The bulk of the increase was driven by camera enforcement, which increased from $26 million in fiscal 2010 to $84.9 million in fiscal 2012 — a more than threefold jump. The fiscal 2012 totals were first reported by the Washington Examiner.

Camera fines are on pace to outstrip all other traffic fines combined by next year.

Traffic fines accounted of 2.7 percent of locally raised city revenue in 2012.

Speed cameras are employed in Virginia if authorized by local ordinance.

In Maryland, they are used in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, and statewide in construction zones. Those construction zone cameras last year produced 473,708 tickets, worth $18.9 million if everybody paid up. D.C. speed cameras, in the first seven months of fiscal 2012, pumped out 225,000 speeding and red-light tickets, with a value of $30.3 million.

Speed cameras have drawn the wrath of some drivers in the Washington region and elsewhere.

In July last year, Maryland State Police troopers closed the Baltimore-Washington Parkway for more than three hours to search for a man who had smashed the windshield of a police sport-utility vehicle that had speed cameras mounted on it.

This month, Montgomery police said, someone knocked down a Georgia Avenue speed camera and then drove off.

In Poland, two men were arrested after they were caught using black spray paint to disable a speed camera in Gdansk. In Italy, someone shot a speed camera in Cremona. A Latvian man posted a YouTube video that showed him kicking over a speed camera in Riga. Scottish vandals decapitated two cameras with a saw.

In Saudi Arabia, some drivers in Riyadh simply put a veil over their license plates.

Crump said drivers in the District ought to slow down.

“Just slowing down a few miles an hour will increase pedestrian survival rates considerably,” she said. “Put simply, an adult pedestrian hit by a car going 30 mph has an 80 percent chance of living. If the car is going 40 mph, there is an 80 percent chance that the pedestrian will be fatally injured. Traffic safety is more important now than ever with the population and development in the District rising and more people and bicyclists on the road.”

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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