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CAR CULTURE

District's Approach Trivializes Red-Light Running

By Warren Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 27, 2005; Page G02

People die when other people deliberately or carelessly run red lights. In fact, an estimated 900 people die annually in traffic accidents involving red-light running, according to statistics compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Half of those fatalities are pedestrians.

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People are injured, many of them seriously, when other people deliberately or carelessly run red lights. In fact, NHTSA says, 200,000 people are injured every year in such a way.

Property and money are lost in the 92,000 yearly vehicle crashes caused by running red lights nationwide, NHTSA says.

How much money depends on how you do the calculations, but the total can amount to several billion dollars, according to some insurance industry analysts.

In short, running a red light is a serious traffic offense. That being the case, you have to wonder why the District of Columbia effectively equates red-light running to a relatively harmless parking violation.

That's right. In the District, if your vehicle allegedly is caught running a red light by one of the cameras installed by Dallas-based Affiliated Computer Services Inc., a $4 billion global Fortune 500 company, the vehicle is ticketed in the manner of a parking citation.

That's the vehicle, not the driver. No points are assessed against the driver's license. No notice is sent to the driver's insurer. Instead, the ticket is sent to the vehicle owner of record, even if the owner wasn't the person behind the wheel at the time of the alleged violation.

Full disclosure: As I discussed a few weeks ago, I received such a ticket last August for running a red light in the District, while I was more than 3,000 miles away in Seattle. The District's Automated Traffic Enforcement office, which partners with Affiliated Computer Services in operating and maintaining the red-light cameras, rejected my appeal of the ticket despite documented proof of my whereabouts.

I supplied the names of the three workmen who had access to my 2000 Chevrolet S-10 pickup, which was cited for the alleged infraction. But because I could not swear that I knew which one of the three actually was driving at the time of the alleged violation, my appeal was rejected.

I paid what grew from a $75 to a $150 fine in order to be able to publicly discuss the issue without the appearance of using my column to escape a civil penalty.

"The D.C. law is very clear," Kevin Morrison, director of communications for the Metropolitan Police Department, said in one of those discussions. "The D.C. law holds the registered owner of the vehicle liable for the citation, the same as it would if the vehicle were issued a parking ticket."

That may make bureaucratic and pecuniary sense. From August 1999 through January 2005, the District collected $29.8 million in fines generated by the 39 red-light cameras in the city, according to the Automated Traffic Enforcement system office. But it makes little sense in terms of Metropolitan Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey's goal for having the cameras in place. "Photo enforcement cameras are a major element of our overall strategy to prevent needless injuries and deaths caused by reckless drivers," Ramsey said in an official policy statement on the devices.

Exactly how does treating a red-light-running violation as a parking infraction serve public safety? Red-light running is a moving violation. Parking is static. Maybe such numbers exist. I certainly looked for them. But I could find no figures anywhere showing how many deaths and injuries are caused by illegal parking.


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