The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. plans to add more traffic cameras

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

Over the next two years, drivers in the District will have to be watchful of more traffic cameras, 24/7 school zones where speeds are limited to 15 mph, and fines of up to $1,000 for speeding violations.

Those are among several measures Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) unveiled Wednesday as part of her commitment to eliminating traffic fatalities by 2024. Her “Vision Zero” action plan lays out strategies for  enforcement, public education and street engineering, and also is expected to expand the city’s sidewalk and bicycle network.

“Any loss of life is unacceptable especially if there are things we can do systematically to prevent those losses. That’s why we talk not only about reducing traffic fatalities but getting to zero,” Bowser said at a Wednesday morning news conference. “We can do this by being steadfast in our investments and steadfast in implementing those investments.”

The goal, she said is to create safe streets, prevent dangerous driving and protect vulnerable residents– pedestrians and bicyclists– through speed reduction efforts.

The plan released early Wednesday called for the city to “deploy 100 additional cameras,” by October 2017, targeting violations including speeding, red light, stop sign, crosswalk and gridlock law breakers. But D.C. transportation officials Wednesday afternoon backed away from that number saying it had inadvertently been left in the 110-page document.

The city considered adding 100 cameras, but the mayor’s final plan would not specify a number, Terry Owens, an spokesman for the D.C. Department of Transportation said.

If the District adds 100 cameras over the next two years, it will significantly increase its automated enforcement.  The city currently operates 153 traffic cameras, including 97 speed, 42 red-light, 7 stop sign, and 7 oversize or weight cameras, according to the Vision Zero plan.

“We do have plans to strategically deploy cameras, but [the total number to be added] was something we decided not to include in the final document,” said Owens, noting that the sole reference to 100 additional cameras was in the appendix and it was left there by mistake. “We acknowledge our mistake. It is an oversight in our part.”

The scores of additional cameras are likely to upset drivers who have widely criticized the city’s 15-year-old automated traffic enforcement program as a money-generator and a tool the city uses to penalize drivers as it pushes the use of public transit, biking and walking.

But D.C. transportation officials say it is justified because data suggests the photo enforcement has proven to be a successful tool for reducing crashes and fatalities.  The “Vision Zero” action plan urges the city to “rapidly deploy additional cameras,” and presents data that suggests declines of more than 16 percent in crashes and a 20 percent reduction in injuries from 2012 to 2014.

“Aggressive and impaired driving endanger everyone,” the report says. “Penalties for those offenses should reflect the severity of the situation and improved programs are needed to prevent unsafe behavior.”

Besides expanding the camera program, the D.C. Department of Transportation is also taking steps to significantly raise fines for traffic violators.  On Friday, the agency announced plans for 20 traffic offenses that are either brand-new  or for which fines will increase substantially. Under that proposal, which is also part of the Vision Zero approach, drivers traveling 25 mph over the speed limit would face fines of up to $1,000, a significant increase from the current $300 fine.

AAA Mid-Atlantic, which represents thousands of motorists in the Washington area has called the proposed fines “exorbitant” and a burden on low- and modest- income drivers. Spokesman, John B. Townsend II said drivers too support safer roads, but are concerned about a plan that appears to specifically target drivers without offering enforcement against bad behaviors by bicyclists and pedestrians that put all road users at risk.

“They are running red lights too, and if it’s wrong for one road user to run a red light, it should be wrong for all road users,” Townsend said. “Their argument is ‘well, we don’t kill anybody, but the problem is they can get themselves killed with their behavior.”

Motorists, he said, have a problem with “one-sided” enforcement.

“If vision zero is going to work, then you have to make sure that you do more than just target and penalize motorists. You have to make them full participants in the process,” he said.

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

Under the mayor’s Vision Zero action plan bicyclists in the District will get 20 miles of upgraded or new on-street bicycle lanes and the city would fill in at least 40 blocks of sidewalk gaps.  The city will keep better track of crash data to more readily provide fatality and serious injury statistics and identify dangerous intersections. More active enforcement will also be sought of parking violations by commercial and delivery trucks such as parking on bike lanes, crosswalks, and double parking.

Here is the Vision Zero action plan:

Other strategies include:

  • Installing side guards on all D.C. and Metrobuses serving the city.
  • Reducing speed limits as on some city streets. As part of this plan,  the city will pilot a 25 mph limit on two major streets and reduce speed limits to 20 mph on some neighborhood streets where the default limit is 25 mph.  Plus, it would create 15 mph zones around schools, parks, senior and youth centers.  The District is seeking to make these zones 24/7, unless signs say otherwise.
  • New training and educational outreach for taxi and ride share drivers and a monitoring program to observe bus driver behaviors.

The plan’s release is nine months after Bowser signed on to a Vision Zero initiative, shortly after she took office.

City officials and advocates say making roads safer for all users should be a priority especially as commuting patterns change with more people choosing to get to work on foot, two wheels and via transit. Nearly 5 percent of D.C. commuters bike to work, about 13.6 percent walk, 38 percent take transit, according to Census figures.

Police data suggests that traffic fatalities have dropped from 62 in 1995 to 49 in 2005 and 26 last year.

“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,” DDOT director Leif Dormsjo said last week at a council hearing where Vision Zero was discussed.  But he said it remains a concern.

According to recent data,  the number of pedestrians and cyclists killed in the city is surpassing the number of motorists or passengers killed. From 2010 to 2014, 67 people in a vehicle were killed, compared to 57 pedestrians and seven cyclists who were killed in traffic crashes, Dormsjo said.

“The safety trend is moving in the right direction,” he said at Wednesday’s announcement of the plan. “But we have a low but persistent number of fatalities in the city that we need to move towards zero and ultimately to zero.”