“We have a big problem,” said D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6). “Virginia and Maryland drivers rack up hundreds, if not thousands and thousands of dollars of automated traffic enforcement [fines,] but we have no way to actually ever enforce it.”
The D.C. Council recently passed a broad transportation bill that, among other things, authorizes Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) to negotiate reciprocity agreements with Virginia and Maryland to ensure drivers in those states face consequences when they violate traffic laws in the city.
For example, under such agreements, registrations and driver’s licenses of Maryland and Virginia drivers could be suspended if they accrue D.C. traffic fines of a certain threshold. Maryland and Virginia would receive a percentage of the fines recovered as compensation.
Allen said the measure seeks to ensure the region works together to hold dangerous drivers accountable. And, he said, it is in the interest of Maryland and Virginia to agree to reciprocity on traffic enforcement because D.C. drivers who visit those states and violate traffic laws would also be held accountable.
It is unclear whether Maryland and Virginia would support such agreements. However, some of the potential penalties, such as the suspension of driving documents, are unlikely to be part of any deal. A law went into effect in Maryland this month that bars the state’s Motor Vehicle Administration from suspending a driver’s license because of nonpayment of a traffic citation or judgment. A Virginia official said the state also does not suspend driver’s licenses solely because of outstanding traffic fines.
“While the District raises an important issue, Virginia will need to study the matter further and identify appropriate consequences for nonpayment of fines,” said Alena Yarmosky, spokeswoman for Gov. Ralph Northam (D).
Yarmosky added: “Virginia is always willing to research and develop strategies that better serve citizens across our region.”
There are more than 2 million outstanding tickets and nearly $440 million in unpaid fines owed to the District from motorists in all three jurisdictions from January 2016 through February of this year, according to DMV records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Slightly more than 1 million of the citations were issued by cameras for traffic infractions such as speeding and red-light running, amounting to $283.5 million in unpaid fines. Nearly a million more were for parking violations, totaling $131.4 million in unpaid fines. The rest — fewer than 5 percent of the unpaid tickets — were issued during traffic stops by a police officer.
Marylanders racked up the most outstanding fines during that period, nearly twice as much as owed by Virginians and almost four times as much as D.C. residents.
Maryland motorists have 1.1 million outstanding tickets worth $240 million in fines — and account for 55 percent of the ticket debt during the four-year period. Marylanders were also caught by cameras more than their counterparts in the District and Virginia and are responsible for 60 percent of the unpaid photo tickets.
Virginians have not paid 668,242 tickets, totaling $133.2 million in fines, according to the data. Meanwhile, D.C. drivers have nearly 354,000 outstanding tickets, totaling about $64 million in fines for the same period.
But critics said the council’s plan to recoup the overdue fines has the potential to exacerbate financial instability within some communities, particularly among the region’s low-income and minority residents.
“The District’s increasing zeal to extract unpaid traffic and parking tickets under the patina of reciprocity will cause some drivers to lose their registrations and licenses,” said John Townsend, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. “Many will likely continue to drive to avoid slipping into the downward spiral of the financial abyss that comes from losing their jobs and hard-earned incomes.”
Townsend, a longtime critic of the District’s traffic enforcement strategy, said the city should instead launch a ticket amnesty program, such as one implemented nearly a decade ago.
In 2011, the District Department of Motor Vehicles gave scofflaws a chance to clear their delinquent parking, photo-enforcement and moving violation tickets by allowing them to pay without penalty. That meant drivers paid half of what they owed because fines on outstanding tickets double after 30 days. The program was in place for six months.
“This is the sorely needed path forward, in terms of administering social justice and in reforming the city’s traffic and parking fines and fees regime, wherein fines double if unpaid after 30 days,” Townsend said. “This robs lower-income motorists of the financial wherewithal and the incentive to pay their overdue tickets.”
The omnibus transportation legislation approved by the council also expands enforcement of traffic violations. It will nearly double the number of red-light cameras by early 2022 and require the use of cameras in bus lanes. It mandates that the city have up to 75 red-light cameras and 10 bus lane cameras by Jan. 1, 2022. That number would grow by January 2024 to include the deployment of 125 red-light cameras and 30 stop-sign cameras.
There are 40 red-light and six stop-sign cameras in use now. No bus lane enforcement cameras are active, although the D.C. Department of Transportation is closer to launching the technology.
As of this week, the legislation was still in the process of being sent to Bowser for signing, and her office has not indicated whether she intends to do so. Once it reaches her desk, the mayor has 10 days to sign, or the legislation automatically moves to the next stage, which is 30 days of congressional review before it becomes law. It is expected to become law early next year.
Roughly 90 percent of outstanding parking and photo citation debts in the District are owed by vehicles registered out of state, and 72 percent are registered in Maryland and Virginia, according to the city. Allen said it’s not about the money.
“We get dangerous drivers that speed through our city and put people at risk,” Allen said. “They get tens of thousands of dollars worth of excessive, dangerous speeding tickets. We’re talking about people that are traveling at 20, 30 or 40 miles per hour over the speed limit, over and over again. That is just a dangerous driver that we’ve got to address.”