There are seasons when New York Avenue seems pocked with potholes, but for the District it is paved with gold.
It likely is one of the most lucrative streets in the world when it comes to collecting a hidden toll in traffic tickets, its gantlet of speed and red-light cameras taking in an average of $30,570 a day and a total of more than $28 million since the start of fiscal 2011.
While some drivers bristle at use of the cameras — including many who travel New York Avenue from the Maryland suburbs — an overwhelming number of District residents surveyed are pleased with the citywide deployment of them.
The nine New York Avenue cameras, spread over about three miles between the Washington Times building and Third Street NW, generated 93,313 tickets and almost $11.8 million last year. Five target red-light violators; four go after speeders.
The volume of license plates from Maryland, Virginia and other states on the avenue points to an obvious fact: Many who pony up the money don’t live in the District.
Anne T. McCartt, senior vice president at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, has studied District driving and speculates that folks who roll in from elsewhere may be less happy with the “Welcome to Washington” ticket program.
“Non-D.C. residents may experience more of the downside of receiving camera tickets without perceiving the benefit of safer streets,” McCartt said.
People who live in the District apparently do, McCartt found when she surveyed them late last year.
“The surprising thing about this survey is that very large percentages of residents supported the red-light cameras and even the speed cameras,” she said.
In fact, 76 percent said they favored use of speed cameras and 87 percent supported use of red-light cameras.
In an earlier study of cities where red-light cameras are used, including the District, McCartt found a 24 percent reduction in fatal crashes caused by red-light running and a 17 percent reduction in fatal intersection crashes of all sorts.
She later did one of the most in-depth studies of red-light cameras after they were introduced in Arlington County. That study found a 48 percent drop in the running of red lights when at least a second had passed since the light changed. Those one-
second violations, as cross traffic has begun to enter an intersection, are most likely to result in accidents and fatalities.
Red-light cameras are banned in nine states, while 11 states allow them with limitations. Ten states and the District permit them, and 20 states have no laws. Virginia allows one red-light camera per 10,000 residents if approved by local ordinance. Maryland permits red-light cameras statewide.
In the District, supporters of traffic cameras said in the survey that they felt safer with the cameras in place. In a reflection of the evolution away from driving in a city with ample mass transit and increasing infrastructure for bicyclists and pedestrians, 24 percent of those surveyed said they had not driven a car in the past month.
About half of those surveyed said they would like to see cameras used to catch people who don’t completely halt at stop signs, and 47 percent said they would support using cameras to ticket drivers who improperly invade intersection or mid-block crosswalks.
More than a third of District traffic deaths involve pedestrians. Between 2007 and 2011, 41 percent of the fatal crashes in the city happened at intersections, and speeding was a factor in 25 percent of deaths during the same period.
The income from New York Avenue cameras since October 2011 has been impressive, with the speed cameras the more lucrative. A speed camera in the 600 block NE brought in $17.8 million; in the 1400 block, $133,960; in the 2700 block, $2.7 million; and a mobile unit in the 2800 block, $2.2 million.
A red-light camera at the intersection of New York and Florida avenues issued $1.3 million in tickets; one at Third Street, almost $1.3 million; at New Jersey Avenue, $1.2 million; at North Capitol Street, $877,720; and at Montana Avenue, $615,310.
One remarkable finding of traffic law research is that fear of getting caught is a greater deterrent than the penalty imposed. This first surfaced when experts examined the declining rate in drunken driving: Police found that publicizing plans for sobriety checkpoints was far more effective in keeping drunken drivers off the road than it was to quietly snare a few of them.
Researchers say the same principle extends to traffic cameras. The $50 fine may sting, but it is the fear of getting caught in the first place that’s more likely to instill caution.
“You want to create this perception that, at any time in any place, you can be apprehended for running a red light or speeding,” McCartt said.
There is abundant evidence along New York Avenue and elsewhere in the District that many drivers have identified traffic camera locations. Drivers-in-the-know slow down dramatically as they approach one, slowing the rest of traffic along with them.
“With both red-light cameras and speed cameras, our studies have shown that violations go down,” McCartt said, “and that they go down not just where the cameras are located, but also at nearby locations without cameras. We refer to that as the spillover effect.”
Despite that, six months into the current fiscal year, the cameras of New York Avenue were on pace to match or better the number of tickets and revenue from each of the previous two years.
“My thought is that until there’s a dramatic cultural change, people will continue to run red lights and speed,” said Jonathan Adkins of the Governors Highway Safety Association, a coalition of state safety officials.