Courtland Milloy: D.C. Council Member Defends Squeezing Suburban Scofflaws

By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, May 27, 2009

So, which commuters are the worst drivers in the Washington area?

"Marylanders are the most reckless drivers, with some of the most outrageous driving habits," says D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1).

It's a one-man poll. But it's one that counts. As chairman of the Public Works and Transportation Committee, Graham is a driving force behind the city's aggressive -- some say oppressive -- two-part traffic control program.

The first part could be described as a war on violators in general. They are being targeted by an increasing number of red-light and speed cameras. And later this year, an expanded army of parking ticket writers will be deployed, as well as street sweepers equipped with cameras to capture parking scofflaws. These are all measures that Graham has pushed hard for, along with more stop signs and traffic-slowing devices such as speed bumps.

"I have been in D.C. permanently since 1972, and from that time until quite recently, my experience of parking enforcement is that it never happened or happened very little," Graham told me recently. "The emphasis on serious crimes during the 1970s and '80s resulted in a decimation of traffic-law enforcement. Only in the last five years have we seen the emergence of a really professional cadre of parking control officers."

Then, there's part two: the talking war, aimed at commuters in particular.

"I am determined to slow these people down," Graham said. "I know it bucks the suburban tradition of thinking they can come into the city and drive recklessly and park in front of fire hydrants or anywhere they want, but I apologize to no one about enforcing our traffic laws. Get used to it. People are already calling me the 'King of the Speed Bumps.' "

Critics of the enhanced enforcement tactics say Graham's motives may not be quite so majestic.

"Money grubbing," is how AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman Lon Anderson put it.

"D.C. has an unfortunate history of operating automated law enforcement programs where money, not safety, is arguably the mission," Anderson said. "Everyone knows the city wants a commuter tax but can't get Congress to approve it. So motorists make for easy pickings. You've got parking signs that take someone with a PhD to figure out if it's legal to park and parking meters that require you to haul around sacks of coins to keep from getting ticketed."

Anderson said the District's enforcement practices are way out of kilter with those of other cities. The District issues 1.5 million parking tickets annually -- 70 percent to motorists who live outside the city. That's more than three times the number issued in somewhat-larger Baltimore. Parking control officers in the District, which has a population of 600,000, write about half as many tickets as those in Los Angeles, population 4 million.

With the added parking enforcement, the city expects to raise an additional $12.6 million annually.

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