November 3, 2012

HERE’S AN IDEA for motorists who complain about having to pay the fines assessed by the District’s traffic cameras: Obey the laws. Driving the speed limit, stopping at red lights and not making prohibited right turns on red are the best defense against getting a ticket. More important, compliance with traffic laws — something indisputably boosted by these much-maligned cameras — enhances safety.

Indeed, lives have been saved. During the 11 years that the city has deployed speed and other cameras, traffic fatalities have been reduced by 69 percent, more than twice the 28 percent drop nationally during the same period. The percentage of fatalities where speed was a contributing factor dropped from 60 percent to 30 percent.

So, despite all the carping of late about the District’s use of these cameras, city officials should give no quarter in using this important and efficient technology. Plans to try to expand the cameras’ use to include infractions such as blocking the box or not giving right of way to pedestrians would be welcome steps that would further improve traffic conditions for both city residents and suburban commuters.

Officials, however, are right to examine whether there is the right balance in how the fines — ranging from $75 to $250 and generally higher than those of other jurisdictions — are set. Maryland residents account for 50 percent of the speeding and red-light violators; 25 percent are D.C. residents; and 15 percent are Virginia residents. Any perception that the program is aimed more at raising revenue — $84.9 million last year — than promoting safety could undermine it.

A task force chaired by D.C. Council members Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) and Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) concluded after three months of study that some fines are unnecessarily high, posing a burden to those least able to afford them. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), no doubt prodded by legislation before the council that would dramatically lower fines, announced on Friday immediate changes in city regulations to lower some fines.

The changes proposed by the council, which will be subject of a public hearing Monday, go further than those being implemented by Mr. Gray. But there seems to be agreement on the general approach: Lower the fines for less dangerous violations, target flagrant violators and aggressive speeders, and redirect some portion of the revenue to improving traffic safety. Those are the right guidelines for a regime that would sustain and strengthen the camera system.