Speed cameras and resentment linger

In a work zone on D.C. 295, drivers are warned that the 35 mph speed limit is camera-enforced and that the speeding fines are doubled.
In a work zone on D.C. 295, drivers are warned that the 35 mph speed limit is camera-enforced and that the speeding fines are doubled. (Evy Mages)
By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 3, 2010

Work zone speed cameras stationed on D.C. 295 near the new Eastern Avenue bridge are snapping away weeks after much of the construction ended, angering drivers but still generating revenue for the District.

Nearly 15,000 speeding tickets were generated by cameras in the work zone, near the Maryland border, between mid-August and the end of October, according to D.C. police statistics. The income from those tickets: at least $3.73 million. That assumes the tickers were all for speeding at least 10 mph over the posted limit, a routine threshold for city police departments. D.C. officials confirm that the amount is in the ballpark.

But there has not been much construction at the site since mid-October, and drivers who regularly use the highway say now that the workers are largely gone, it's time for the speed cameras to go, too.

"If I had a saw, I'd cut the sign down myself," said Jay Friedman, a retail store consultant who lives in College Park and travels the road several times a week. "The construction workers are gone. They've been gone."

The cameras were placed in the work zone in July to guard workers from speeding vehicles after a "number of accidents in the vicinity," said John Lisle, a spokesman for the D.C. Department of Transportation. "A lot of vehicles were not heeding the speed limits and were flying through the area," he said.

The posted speed limit on signs along the stretch of highway is 35 mph, 10 mph less than other areas of the road. Those who are caught speeding between 11 and 15 mph over the limit can get slapped with a $250 fine because speeding fines in work zones are doubled. Yellow and orange signs warn drivers of "PHOTO ENFORCEMENT" and "DOUBLE FINES."

Some minor construction work and closures continue at the site, Lisle said, so the controversial speed cameras - the first deployed by the city in a work zone - have stayed put. Police and city officials say automated enforcement has reduced the number of crashes.

"We're hoping to use these speed cameras more often," said Assistant Police Chief Patrick Burke, citing accidents such as the June death of a highway worker in a work zone in nearby Anne Arundel County. "This is to keep people safe."

The Eastern Avenue bridge over D.C. 295 reopened in late October, less than 10 months after it closed for a complete reconstruction. The project proceeded quickly because large sections of the bridge were precast and trucked to the site. The $10.4 million project, which provides higher clearances on the road and is designed to improve traffic flow at Eastern Avenue, was funded by federal stimulus money.

After dealing with the construction delays, drivers are eager to put the work behind them. John Townsend, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said the cameras could undermine support for the city's speed camera program. In poll after poll, he said, drivers express opposition to them.

"We would agree that no one should speed through a work zone, but it has to be a legitimate work zone," Townsend said. "You have to balance the need for safety with being fair."

Nick Lewis, a UPS worker from Arlington, said he was returning from Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport on Saturday morning when he saw the camera flash in his rearview mirror.

"Everyone slams on their brakes when they see the signs, and the camera goes off like a machine gun," Lewis said. "Within 200 yards, it goes back to 45 miles per hour. That's larceny."

From mid-August - when a month-long grace period ended and real enforcement began - to the end of October, 14,929 tickets were generated by the cameras at the D.C. 295 work zone, police said. Results for November are not available.

Drivers going a few miles over the 35 mph speed limit are generally not ticketed, but Burke declined to say what the threshold is. In Maryland, where a law on the use of speed cameras in work zones and school zones passed last year, camera images can only be used for those caught going 12 mph over the speed limit. Virginia does not allow speed cameras.

"We're not picking people off for going a few miles over," Burke said. "It's common practice to give people some leeway and not to ticket for going 5, 6, 7 miles per hour over the limit."

D.C. work zone fines are $300 for going 16 to 20 mph over the speed limit; $400 for 21 to 25 mph over; and $500 for 26 mph or more.

But there is some relief for drivers traveling the stretch in question: The cameras only issue tickets from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., when workers are present, Burke said. At other times, the cameras are deactivated, he said. So afternoon rush-hour racers are usually off the hook.

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