October 12, 2012

The D.C. government has set a clear priority: It doesn’t want anyone to die in a traffic accident on its streets. Who would disagree with that?

What if the price of achieving that goal were just a tiny bit less thrill behind the wheel?

I hope everyone in our region is willing to put others’ lives ahead of a momentary high. That’s because we can save a lot of lives with a simple action: obeying the laws, and avoiding speeding.

Post columnist Courtland Milloy recently explained his visceral objection to following speed laws:

“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. . . .

“Lately, though, some jurisdictions have ramped up efforts to kill that feeling — to actually steal the joy of driving altogether.”

Many drivers believe that they can safely drive faster, often much faster, than the speed limit. We’re so used to doing this, we don’t even realize it’s unsafe. Modern cars shield drivers so well from bumps and noises. The world outside seems unreal, like a video game on a screen, with everything in it merely an obstacle to getting somewhere. Studies have found that 80 to 93 percent of drivers believe they are above average in ability. Mathematically, this isn’t possible.

Our neighborhoods deserve better. Real human beings walk around in them, including children and seniors who often move slowly and are most vulnerable. Last month, a driver on Sixth Street NW killed a Marymount University professor on the sidewalk, and another driver hit two teenagers in Montgomery County — on Walk to School Day, no less.

Forty miles per hour may not seem too fast on a wide residential street and in a car built for highway speeds, but it’s deadly. A driver traveling 30 mph who hits a pedestrian is about 45 percent likely to kill that person. At 40 mph, the odds jump to 85 percent. If the victim is older than 65, the likelihood of death is even greater.

Because of all this, the District has installed more speed and red light cameras, but the increase has prompted an outcry from unhappy drivers, who argue that the fines are too high and that the cameras are just a revenue grab.

Is that true? Today, speeding 11 to 16 miles per hour over the limit carries a fine of $125 in the District. That compares to $446 in California, $100 in New York and $40 in Maryland, according to data the Metropolitan Police Department provided to the D.C. Council.

An enforcement program needs to focus on safety, not other factors. If a fine pushes people not to speed, great. If it gratuitously charges more than is necessary to accomplish that goal, that undermines the program’s legitimacy, as D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) has argued. I served on a task force created by Wells and council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) on this subject that wrapped up its work on Oct. 3, along with representatives from AARP, AAA, the District’s pedestrian and bicycle councils, Howard University, American University and more.

Here’s some of what we learned: Studies conducted in Virginia and Australia have found no relationship between the size of a speeding fine and compliance. That suggests that lowering the fine could keep the safety benefit while creating more legitimacy in the minds of the people of our region. On the other hand, an Israeli study suggested that, for red-light cameras, higher fines make a difference.

What does change behavior is the certainty of enforcement. Research shows that people are much more likely to follow a law if the chance of getting caught is high than if the potential punishment is severe. This suggests that the best way to safer streets is more cameras, even with lower fines. (It also suggests that more and better policing, rather than longer prison sentences, is the way to address other types of crime.)

The council members seem poised to offer a bill that lowers the fines for speeding (at least speeding at moderated levels) while also streamlining the path for the District to further expand its safety enforcement. That would be a fair compromise that improves safety in two ways: It would ensure that the fines are related to public safety, and it would help the city expand the program to more neighborhoods that need safer streets.

Will this placate critics? Likely some. AAA has not endorsed any specific proposal but its government relations manager, John Townsend, said at a task-force meeting that the organization supports enforcement as long as fines relate to safety and not revenue.

What about folks like Milloy, who will miss the thrill of driving a little too fast, or who believe that their driving skills let them handle higher speeds than transportation officials think are safe? I hope all residents who care about their fellow men and women can get behind building a world where we all drive a little more carefully.

The writer is the editor of the blog Greater Greater Washington. He participates in The Post’s Local Blog Network.