Drivers who illegally block bike lanes, run red lights and disregard crosswalks in the District might soon have their driving violations aired out online for everyone to see.
A new Twitter bot, How’s My Driving DC, uses license plate numbers to produce a list of unresolved traffic fines and violations on request. Since its launch this summer, the Twitter account has unearthed tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid fees among drivers on District roads, thanks to probing passersby.
The high number so far? A Maryland vehicle with 84 tickets, amounting to $10,700 in fines at the time. That number has since risen to exceed $12,000 as more fines have accrued.
Personal details such as the vehicle owner’s name are not included in the record, culled from the District Department of Transportation’s unpaid-ticket database. Creator Daniel Schep said the bot was never meant to publicly shame individuals.
But D.C. traffic enforcement agencies, he said, should be ashamed of the numbers the bot is turning up.
“When I first started this, I was shocked — and I still am — by the numbers I see on a regular basis,” said Schep, 31, a software engineer who lives in the Truxton Circle neighborhood. “They’re absurd. They’re numbers that a reasonable person would think might result in a car being booted or towed. Not in D.C.”
About 30 Department of Public Works tow trucks roam the city on any given day, officials said. For a vehicle to be towed, several factors must coincide, including having two or more unpaid tickets more than 60 days old and being spotted by an officer in time to alert a tow truck before the car is moved.
It takes much longer for the tow truck to travel to a car’s location than it does for the bot to spit out the results of a plate search online. By the time tow trucks arrive, public-works officials said, the vehicles are usually gone.
Some who use the bot contend that the sheer volume of unpaid traffic citations in the District is a sign of a failed system in which dangerous drivers are allowed to break rules with impunity.
“If people don’t speed, they won’t get a ticket — it’s simple,” Schep said. “The thing that’s excessive in this city are people speeding, and they kill people when they do that.”
Others say the dollar amounts left unpaid are instead an indicator that the District’s traffic enforcement and fine levels are unreasonable.
“This is an issue we hear multiple perspectives on, with some calling for a larger enforcement presence and others calling for less,” said Department of Public Works Director Chris Shorter. “It’s a balance we work hard to maintain, knowing that with our growing and evolving city, there are always opportunities to innovate and improve.”
Tickets in the District range from $50 to $300, according to police, and double if left unpaid for more than 30 days. They are issued in person by police officers, left on windshields by traffic officers and sent to drivers’ homes after automated cameras snap photos of cars running red lights or speeding.
Last year, the District issued 2.6 million tickets, including photo citations, parking tickets and moving violations, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic.
Of those, more than 806,000 went unpaid. That’s roughly $133 million in unpaid fines, AAA said, up from $125 million the previous year.
“That’s unconscionable,” said John Townsend, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic and a longtime critic of D.C. ticket practices. “What the District has done is put speed cameras on roads that invite violations. And it’s not making the roads safer.”
D.C. traffic fines have come under scrutiny in recent months as the city has moved to eliminate license suspensions for some drivers who have unpaid tickets or miss court hearings to address them.
The measure, passed unanimously by the D.C. Council and awaiting congressional review, was seen as rejecting a practice that disproportionately affects the District’s poorest residents. Under the new bill, drivers could still have their licenses suspended for criminal convictions or driving dangerously.
All the while, traffic fatalities have been trending upward.
Schep said he does not believe the problem lies with fine levels.
“The issue is speeding,” he said, “not speeding tickets.”
That is part of the reason he decided to build the bot — to find out how pervasive some traffic violations are. A similar bot exists in New York, where more information about driving history is available.
The D.C. bot’s popularity has risen sharply since its launch in July, particularly among the District’s cyclists, who routinely tweet photos of cars and trucks blocking bike lanes.
Ezra Deutsch-Feldman, 30, said he was already in the habit of taking photos of cars illegally blocking his way as he bikes through the city. He contributes to a crowdsourced project called Bike Lane Uprising, which collects information about blocked bike paths to highlight patterns and problem areas in cities such as Chicago and the District.
So when the How’s My Driving DC bot was created, he said, it gave him a new tool.
“These drivers that park in the bike lane, we always say they’re endangering cyclists, which is true. So I find it satisfying to look them up and see, ‘Oh, this person got a ticket for going 21 to 25 miles over the speed limit’ — which is crazy,” Deutsch-Feldman said. “It confirms what I’ve been thinking, like, some drivers really do act in a dangerous way and don’t seem to care.”
It is not clear what impact the bot has had beyond offering angry cyclists, motorists and pedestrians the salve of vindication.
The vehicle registered to the Maryland driver with more than $12,000 in unpaid fines was towed in August after a flurry of tweets were sent to D.C. traffic agencies. As of Wednesday, it was still impounded.
Twitter users hailed it as a victory. Several of the bot’s fans said they hope it will be just the first instance of a driver being held accountable.
“If enforcement means writing a ticket and never actually enforcing that, it’s not real enforcement and it’s not going to change anyone’s behavior,” Schep said. “For me, this all highlights that the system we have now isn’t working.”