By Avis Thomas-Lester
Saturday, February 5, 2011; B01
Speeders, red-light runners and other unlawful motorists beware: D.C. police are expanding the number of traffic cameras and increasing the types of infractions for which the technology can be used, authorities said.
Under the program, the city's current 30 speed cameras and 50 red-light cameras will be augmented with sleeker, smaller and easier-to-deploy cameras. Instead of focusing solely on speeding and red-light running, the new technology will be used to enforce other traffic laws, such as failing to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk, experts said.
D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said the new cameras would be rolled out in about a year in areas whose statistics demonstrate a need for additional enforcement. She said the expanded program would allow for enforcement in places too dangerous for officers, such as tunnels. In addition to speeding, the technology will be used to cut down on blocking the intersection and truck height-restriction violations, and to weigh trucks along Interstate 295.
"The technology gives us the capability to do additional types of enforcement," Lanier said. "I need to get my police officers fighting crime in neighborhoods. If I can have an automated system take the place of what 100 police officers could do and make the work safer for police officers, why wouldn't I? That's the benefit to me."
Opponents of the expansion say it is an attempt by the city to raise money, not make the streets safer.
"We think they are going to move the automated enforcement division from the police department to the revenue department," said Lon Anderson, managing director of AAA Mid-Atlantic. "We've suspected that for a long time, but this seems to confirm it. . . . It looks like [the department] has decided that it doesn't need to be in traffic enforcement at all and is going to turn it all over to automation."
Lanier said "revenues go down" from speeding tickets in areas with traffic cameras because the technology deters infractions. She said she had no estimate of the amount of money the new cameras will bring in and did not know how many will be deployed.
She said studies show that traffic enforcement cameras save lives. Traffic fatalities in the District dropped to 25 last year from a high of 75 a decade ago.
"And that's as the population has increased," Lanier said. "That's success, if you ask me."
The dust-up over the expansion is the latest controversy in a debate that has swirled around the city's automated enforcement system since it was implemented in 1999. The District has drawn fire for several cameras, including a speed camera stationed on outbound lanes of New York Avenue NE, on the outskirts of the city near the U.S. National Arboretum, where there is no intersection or pedestrian traffic.
Anderson said citizen input should have been sought before the department decided to expand the program. He said any traffic problems significant enough to spur additional cameras should first be addressed by manned enforcement.
"We hear that there is going to be enforcement of things like cars going into crosswalks when pedestrians are there," he said. "If this is a huge problem, I would have expected to see some police enforcing this. I work downtown. I am a pedestrian and a motorist downtown every day. If this is a problem, I haven't seen it, but it must be because they want to get machines to do this enforcement. We always thought automated enforcement was a good supplement to policing, but we didn't understand that it was going to be a replacement for enforcement."
Anderson called the District's automated traffic enforcement program "the most aggressive" in the nation. Montgomery and Prince George's counties, along with some jurisdictions in Northern Virginia, also have installed traffic enforcement cameras but have not created the same level of controversy because there are so few. AAA is working in Richmond to kill two pieces of legislation that would alter the program in Virginia.
"One bill basically would prevent the expansion of the program. It would grandfather in those cameras that exist, but say there would be no more," Anderson said. "The other bill would remove Virginia Department of Transportation oversight of the program. One of the protections we worked with legislators to put in was that VDOT would have complete say-so in authorizing cameras. A city or county would have to provide VDOT with information about why the cameras were needed in a particular spot, and VDOT would have to sign off. We thought that would prevent them from becoming cash cows instead of public safety instruments."
Lanier said D.C. police officials did not seek citizen input but testified before the D.C. Council on the measure in 2009. She said the department is looking at where the biggest problems are, and that's where the technology will be deployed.
"Studies show the use of automated enforcement programs reduce crashes and fatalities," she said. "It is no different from doing drunk-driving enforcement. If I can stop the kind of behavior that leads to traffic fatalities, I can save lives. That's my job."