The Washington Post

D.C. Council prepares to slash traffic fines

(Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

D.C. Council members are moving forward with a proposal to slash fines for speeding and other traffic offenses by as much as 50 percent, despite efforts by Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) to push for a much smaller reduction.

Under a bill to be voted on Thursday by the Judiciary Committee, the fine for traveling from 11 to 15 miles per hour over the speed limit will drop to $75. Fines for traveling 16 to 20 miles per hour over the speed limit will drop to $150.

The new fines, which could cost the city tens of millions of dollars, would be assessed on citations issued from either a speed camera or a police officer. Fines for making an illegal turn on red, failure to clear an intersection and failing to stop at a right away would also drop, according to a draft of the bill being circulated to members.

The legislation is a joint effort by council members Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) and Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) to aggressively respond to concerns from motorists that the city is becoming too reliant on revenue from traffic tickets.

If approved by the Judiciary Committee and the full council, the legislation would amount to a public scolding of Gray’s reliance on traffic cameras to help the city maintain revenue.

In recent years, some District residents have complained that speed camera fines are so high they’ve had trouble paying their bills after they’ve received one.

The District took in $178 million in traffic fines in fiscal 2012, a 32 percent increase from the previous year and a 62 percent hike from two years ago. Earlier this year, Gray made expanded use of traffic cameras a centerpiece of his budget proposal, vowing to “blanket the city” with them to bolster safety.

But as more council members began to question Gray’s strategy, the mayor was forced this month to abruptly propose his own reduction in the fines.

On Nov. 2, Gray signed an executive order lowering a speed camera fine for going 10 mph or less over the speed limit from $75 to $50. The new regulations, which took effect immediately, also reduced $125 tickets for going 11 to 15 mph to $100.

But Gray said camera tickets from 16 to 25 mph would remain between $150 and $200, while those caught going more than 25 mph over the limit will pay a new higher fine of $300.

Gray argues that the city cannot afford further reductions to the fines. Police Chief Cathy Lanier has also questioned whether lower fines would be a deterrent to speeding.

The Judiciary Committee counters Gray’s revisions “are not substantial enough.”

“Public support is essential to the continued expansion of the automated enforcement program in the District, and as long as the public continues to perceive the program as primarily a revenue-generating tool, then this support will be illusory,” a draft committee report states.

The council bill lowers all of Gray’s imposed fines for traveling in excess of 10 mph by about $50, though the fine for traveling less than 10 mph over would remain at $50.

The top fine for exceeding the speed limit by more than 25 mph would drop from $300 to $250 under the council bill. Fines for violating a “no turn on red sign” and failure to complete a stop before turning on red would be slashed in half to $50, according to a draft version of the bill.

Unlike Gray’s change, the council bill also applies to tickets issued by law enforcement officials.

“The committee does not see a justification for lowering the latter while not at the same time lowering the former,” a draft of committee report states.

The proposal also requires Gray to complete an assessment of all speed limits throughout the city.

But even if approved by the council, it’s unclear how quickly the new fines would be implemented.

According to an analysis by the Office of the Chief Financial Officer, the council bill would cost the District $95.8 million in lost revenue over four years. The council may have to wait until spring to find other budget savings to implement the changes, or leave it up to Gray to find additional revenue or cost controls.

Tim Craig is The Post’s bureau chief in Pakistan. He has also covered conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and within the District of Columbia government.


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