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D.C. Council to consider raising traffic fines up to $1,000

One of the District’s most profitable speed enforcement cameras, on K Street. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

The D.C. Council will hold a public hearing next week on a controversial proposal to raise traffic fines in the District — among them, a $1,000 ticket for drivers going 25 over the posted speed limit.

The council’s Committee on Transportation and the Environment will hear from the D.C. Department of Transportation and residents on Jan. 8 — in what promises to be a lively discussion about the proposed new fines for 20 traffic offenses. The proposal calls for significant increases to several traffic offenses and the creation of new ones as part of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Vision Zero plan.

The D.C. Department of Transportation’s plan has ignited strong criticism from the drivers and their advocates who question the city’s intentions. Some say the District’s traffic enforcement system — chiefly through speed and red-light cameras — is the city’s way to tax Maryland and Virginia residents and raise revenue. They have called the proposed fines “draconian and arbitrary” and “exorbitant.”

But D.C. transportation officials have defended the plan, which is part of the mayor’s strategy to bring to zero the number of traffic-related deaths by 2024.

“We need a strong deterrent from our law enforcement partners that reflects how serious these behaviors are,” DDOT spokesman Terry Owens said. “The goal of Vision Zero is to save lives, not generate revenue.”

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

Council member Mary M. Cheh, chair of the Committee on Transportation and the Environment, has questioned the plan. Earlier this month, she said she wants to determine whether the mayor has authority to raise the fines and whether there is data suggesting that higher fines deter speeding.

Cheh scheduled the public oversight roundtable and is expected to seek questions about how the proposed fines  compare with those in neighboring jurisdictions. She said the city needs to prove that the higher fines are justified, otherwise road users would think it is the District’s strategy to raise revenue.

DDOT officials say the proposals aim to increase penalties for drivers who endanger public safety. Besides the proposed higher fines, the mayor has outlined several measures in her Vision Zero plan to reduce traffic fatalities and injuries and bring those to zero by 2024. The mayor’s plan offers strategies on education, enforcement and engineering, as well as better use of data to prevent road deaths.

“We are in the midst of a 30-day public comment period, and we look forward to reviewing that feedback,” Owens said.

If adopted as proposed, the regulations would set the ticket amount at $1,000 for speeding over 25 mph, and automated and traditional traffic enforcement may be used for issuing tickets for speeding over 25 mph. Besides raising the fines, the city recently proposed expanding the automated traffic enforcement and lowering speed limits.

[D.C. plans to add more traffic cameras]

Among the proposed new fines: $200 for rolling through a right turn on red, $500 for a driver whose car blocks traffic while sorting out an accident; $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 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 incur a fine of $200 rather than $50; and the penalty for 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 cost $100 instead of $25.

[D.C.’s proposed $1,000 speeding ticket, explained]

The fine for going 25 over the speed limit will rise to $1,000 from the current $300. The city’s default speed limit is 25 mph, so city transportation officials and supporters of higher fines say driving 25 mph over the limit is unacceptable.

“If you are driving on a neighborhood street at 50 MPH, there’s no excuse for the level of risk you are imposing on everyone on the street,” Owens said. “When a pedestrian is struck at 50 MPH, there’s a 75 percent chance he or she will die. If you’re driving the speed limit, such as the 20 MPH speed limit our regulations recommend for certain residential areas, and you strike a pedestrian, he or she has a 94 percent chance of survival.”

The meeting is set for Friday, Jan. 8, at 11:00 a.m. in Room 500 of the John A. Wilson Building, 1350 Pennsylvania Ave. NW.