New York Avenue at Bladensburg: Hit the gas, and speed cameras hit back

There are speed cameras -- either mobile or fixed -- monitoring both incoming and outgoing vehicles on New York Avenue NE.
There are speed cameras -- either mobile or fixed -- monitoring both incoming and outgoing vehicles on New York Avenue NE. (Mark Gail/the Washington Post)
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By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 26, 2010

Drivers call it the "free at last" traffic light. After doing the stop-and-go head bobble all the way from downtown, when they reach the light at Bladensburg Road they feel they've earned their freedom from the purgatory of New York Avenue.

They hit the gas -- and the city hits back with a speeding ticket.

In the blink of its lens, a speed camera catches the first real burst of acceleration most drivers have known in the last half-hour. To put it in the most polite terms possible, this honks them off.

Even drivers who are resigned to speed cameras object to the mobile camera that has been operating a few hundred yards past Bladensburg, in front of the entrance to the National Arboretum. Finally, three lanes of expressway beckon with no mandate to stop again until the Chesapeake Bay Bridge or Baltimore.

"It is an old-fashioned, money-making, motorist rip-off speed trap right out of the 'Dukes of Hazzard,' " said Lon Anderson of the AAA.

To understand their anger, a bit of background. In this era of mindless reality television, there probably is an entire season to be had in the search for the most-hated stretch of road in America, but anyone who drives it regularly will make the case for New York Avenue.

Endless traffic lights, endless construction and traffic that moves like an inchworm for four miles between Seventh Street NW and Bladensburg Road.

It's also important to know that speed cameras are neither new nor rare in the District. Last month, they churned out 58,844 tickets and generated $3,151,970 in fines. Last year, they dispensed more than half a million tickets and raked in $33 million.

But when drivers bellyache about seeing a camera right where they might want to accelerate toward Route 50 or the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, one word comes to the minds of many.

"Unfair," as if it's simply not fair to put it right there.

"This is what I consider to be an inappropriate location," said C.P. Zilliacus, who drives by frequently and has yet to get a ticket.

Not so fast, said Patrick Burke, assistant chief of the D.C. police department.

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