The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Violate D.C. traffic laws? It’s gonna cost you — a lot.

Speed cameras capture motorists on I-395 near Second Street NW in D.C. (Daniel Britt/The Washington Post)

Drivers who exceed D.C. speed limits by more than 25 miles per hour will face $1,000 fines, rolling through a right-turn-on-red will cost $200, and a driver whose car blocks traffic while sorting out an accident could receive a $500 traffic ticket– increases set to be made public Friday by the District Department of Transportation.

Those are among 20 fines that are either brand-new offenses or will increase substantially under a DDOT proposal.

Among the proposed new fines: $100 for speeding near a recreation or senior center; $500 for failure to slow down and get out of the way for an ambulance, fire engine or police car responding to an incident and $500 for failure to yield to a bus reentering traffic.

Several of the big proposed increases relate to drivers interacting with pedestrians and bicyclists. The fine for hitting a cyclist would increase from $50 to $500; a driver failing to yield to a pedestrian while turning right on red would cost $200 rather than $50; and parking in a bike lane would go up from the current $65 to $200 for private cars and $300 for commercial vehicles. Swinging open a parked car’s door into the path of a cyclist would incur a $100 fine instead of the $25.

The proposed fine increases by DDOT are legal, but AAA Mid-Atlantic questions why they were not considered and approved by the D.C. Council.

“DDOT is doing this through the regulator process,” said AAA’s John B., Townsend II. “Why not do it through the legislative process, where you can have public hearings?”

D.C. Council member Mary Cheh said she was surprised that DDOT has decided to increase the fines through regulations when on Tuesday a council committee held a hearing on legislation that also tackles bad driving habits.

“I want to make sure the mayor has authority” to raise the fines, said Cheh who chairs the council’s transportation committee. 

“Is there data that supports that this is something that will deter people from speeding? Otherwise people would think this is just a money raiser,” she said. “I have questions and concerns. I want to know what they are basing this on. Is it justified?”

DDOT Director Leif Dormsjo said no formal vote is required by the council on the changes, titled Vision Zero, but members can ask to amend or reject the proposed rules.

“We need to provide the enforcement tools that prevent dangerous behavior and back up the education, engineering, and analysis that will form the other pillars of Vision Zero,” Dormsjo said in an email. “We are also committed to a transparent process. By publishing these rules in the [DC Register], the public and elected officials will have the opportunity to have an active role in Vision Zero.”

The proposal is backed by advocacy groups for pedestrians and bicyclists who have been lobbying for higher fines and lower speed limits as a way to tackle the growing number of traffic fatalities and injuries in the city. They say tougher penalties could help make roads safer for all users especially as commuting patterns change with more people choosing to commute via foot, two wheels and transit.

“Right now the rate of injuries are very upsetting,” said Moira McCauley, an advocate with the nonprofit group All Walks DC, noting that estimates suggest about one pedestrian is killed monthly on city streets.

“We can’t wait any longer to do something,” she said. “We definitely support fines reflecting the damage that is actually done.”

Although traffic fatalities nationwide have been on a downward spiral in recent decades, the District this year has seen a slight increase that coincides with more incidents involving pedestrians and bicyclists. Police data suggests that traffic fatalities have dropped from 62 in 1995 to 49 in 2005 and 26 last year. Officials credit traffic laws and enforcement practices such as speed and red light cameras for the reduction.

“The evolution of the District’s traffic laws and enforcement practices have been critical to this progress, as have our efforts around re-engineering streets and improving the education of the traveling public,” Dormsjo said at a Tuesday Council committee hearing where tougher penalties were discussed. The D.C. Council also is considering legislation that could bring tougher penalties for traffic infractions, including repeat drunk drivers and aggressive motorists.

Dormsjo said traffic fatalities remain a concern. Police estimates for the first six months of 2015 show that fatalities are up 8.1 percent compared to the same period last year.

“While we have been successful in bringing down fatalities overall, we nonetheless have a low but persistent number of pedestrian and bicycle fatalities,” Dormsjo said.

Townsend denounced the fine increase proposal as “draconian and arbitrary,” pointing out that fines double unless they are paid within 30 days.

“The exorbitant fines would place a financially tremendous and undue burden on low- and modest- income drivers. What person of modest means can pay it?” he said. “So they will get their drivers license suspended.”

The proposed changes are to be published in the DC Register as early as Friday. Under the law, D.C. regulations can be changed after the are published in the Register twice, allowing for a comment period of 30 days between publication.