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

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 26, 2010; A01

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.

"Just because people have been sitting in traffic doesn't mean that when they hit that light it suddenly becomes the autobahn," Burke said. "If you don't want a ticket, the name of the game is 'Slow down.' "

The aggressive use of red-light and speed cameras is one reason the District's traffic-fatality count has dropped to record lows, Burke said. He pointed out that fewer than 2 percent of New York Avenue drivers have received speeding tickets.

"I don't seen how anyone can say enforcing the speed limit is unfair," Burke said.

Aaaah: Fairness, the elusive American ideal enshrined in those yellowed parchment documents signed by the Founding Fathers.

Never mind that speeding is illegal; never mind that the 40 mph speed limit is clearly posted on an oversize sign smack in the middle of the roadway. Fairness, they will tell you, is what it's all about.

"What's happening at this [camera] site is violating the concept of freedom," said Isaac Kramnick, professor of government at Cornell University. "You've come all this way through traffic and now the government is stepping in with a ticket at this crucial moment of freedom."

Yes, freedom, not to the mention the American way of life.

Kramnick points to renowned English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who said in 1651 that freedom is the absence of hindrance to motion.

Freedom, Hobbes likely would agree, is a green light at Bladensburg Road.

Finally, the last hindrance to motion is overcome, and freedom awaits.

And what is freedom in America?

"The automobile is the symbolic icon of freedom," Kramnick said. "It is in the use of the car that we exercise our freedom. It taps into the psyche of what it is to be an American."

When drivers feel they've been treated unfairly, one person who hears from them is the automobile association's Anderson.

"We have had many, many member complaints about this location over the years," Anderson said. "Interestingly, we rarely get complaints about enforcement at locations our members consider to be legitimate."

When police positioned a camera there a number of years ago, Anderson said he prevailed on then-D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz to have it banished. He said he knew it had returned this spring when member complaints resumed.

"The camera does nothing for safety," Anderson said. "There are no more intersections, no pedestrians, and there is nothing dangerous about driving 50 or 55 mph on that stretch of road."

Zilliacus, who regularly drives from the District to Anne Arundel County, said that savvy drivers now know to be on the lookout for the speed camera car, and that has caused a dangerous situation.

"A lot of people who are going well over 40 will see the car there and slam on the brakes," he said. "The people behind them are not expecting to need to stop."

Anderson said he has no issue with putting a camera on the opposite side of New York Avenue, where traffic needs to slow from freeway speeds to those appropriate for city streets. But the outbound location "completely undermines the credibility of their automated enforcement system and repeated statements that it has nothing to do with money and is all about safety."

Zilliacus agrees.

"Does it increase people's cynicism?" he asked. "I know people who would immediately jump to the conclusion that it's there to produce revenue. I'm not in a position to conclude that, but I know many people would."

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