On May 13, 1981, Eleanor Debrah Baxter of Davidsonville, Md., was involved in a minor car accident in the District. Because it was her fault, a policeman wrote her a ticket.
On May 18, 1981, Debbie Baxter was involved in another car accident in the District. This time, she was killed.
While going through her belongings a few weeks later, her sister, Gwen Law, of Severn, Md., noticed the May 13 ticket, which Debbie evidently hadn't gotten around to paying. So Gwen called the D.C. Department of Transportation to inform them that the ticket would never be paid because the person who got it was dead.
If you think that's the end of the story, you must not have had the pleasure of dealing with this fair city's not-so-fair bureaucracy. In fact, as incredible as it sounds, the saga of Debbie Baxter's unpaid traffic ticket continues to this day.
The fun and games began with the clerk who took Gwen Law's phone call. After Gwen explained the situation, the clerk didn't even have the courtesy to push the hold button before she yelled to a coworker:
"Hey, there's some woman on the phone whose sister died and has a ticket. What am I supposed to do?"
Nice, compassionate way to handle a bereaved relative.
Then, two months later, a computer-written notice addressed to Debbie arrived at Gwen's house. It said the $5 ticket would now cost her $10. Gwen called DOT again and explained that Debbie was dead. She assumed that that took care of it.
It didn't. On April 4, 1983, nearly two full years after Debbie Baxter's death, another computer mash note graced the mailbox. This one said that since Debbie hadn't paid up, her driving privileges were subject to suspension.
If I had been Gwen Law, I would have demanded to see the mayor right about then. But Gwen hit on a better solution.
She wrote DOT to say that since Debbie's new address was Lakefront Cemetery, they could go ahead and suspend her license, because she wouldn't be needing it at her new residence.
DOT didn't appreciate Gwen's cleverness, however. Their official position: Debbie's estate or family is still expected to pay the ticket. And because of the delay, the $10 has now increased to $20.
"It's just like if you had an outstanding bill at Sears" at the time you die, said Tara Hamilton, a D.C. DOT official. "You still have an obligation to D.C." However, Hamilton added that back tickets are settled on a case-by-case basis, and outstanding fines are sometimes canceled under exceptional circumstances.
I'd say that a computer trying to collect $20 from a woman who's been dead for two years is an exceptional circumstance. But maybe I just don't understand the system.