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Proposal to significantly boost D.C. traffic fines likely to be altered, official says

Council member Mary M. Cheh, chair of the Committee on Transportation and the Environment called for the hearing on the proposed higher traffic fines. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

This post has been updated.

The District’s top transportation official said Friday that he is considering amending the proposed higher traffic fines, particularly a $1,000 ticket for “super speeders,” that have ignited widespread criticism among motorists.

At a D.C. Council hearing, D.C. Department of Transportation Director Leif Dormsjo defended the plan to implement higher penalties, saying they are intended to deter dangerous behaviors responsible for many of the city’s traffic fatalities, but admitted there’s no significant correlation between higher fines and changes in behavior.

“The academic research is inconclusive in relationship between the fines and desired outcomes,” said Dormsjo.”High fines alone are not sufficient to achieve the behavioral changes we need.”

The D.C. Department of Transportation proposal creates eight new penalties and increases fines for about a dozen traffic offenses — in some instances doubling and tripling the current financial penalties. For example, drivers going 25 mph over the posted speed limit would face a $1,000 ticket, up from the current $300.

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

The proposal is part of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s “Vision Zero” strategy to eliminate traffic-related deaths by 2024. But the plan has draw criticisms, with many motorists and advocates deriding the proposal as “arbitrary” and a “cash grab in the name of traffic safety.”

Bowser last week assured residents that the District is unlikely to start handing out $1,000 tickets and distanced herself from the proposal, saying she hadn’t given the plan her “stamp of approval,” and that “it is up for discussion” whether fine increases will be part of her efforts to reduce traffic-related deaths and injuries.

On Friday, Dormsjo said that the agency has listened to the mayor and residents’ comments, hinting that the proposed fines will most likely be amended. But he defended DDOT’s approach to target “super speeders” with hefty fines, noting that speeding is a factor in about a third of traffic fatalities in the District. Last year, there was 26 road fatalities, including 14 pedestrians, Dormsjo said.

[Mayor Bowser says $1,000 speeding fines unlikely]

When asked how the District come up with the proposed fines, Dormsjo said that at least nine other states have a maximum speeding fine of at least $1,000, and nationally the medium fine for the most dangerous speeders is $500 when the District’s is $300. In an earlier interview, Dormsjo said that upping the penalties is key to leveling the playing field in a region where the District’s “fine regime is the weakest.”

“Given the prevalence of speeding in our fatalities we think an aggressive stance on the highest speed offenses is warranted,” he said.

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

D.C. Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), who chairs the Committee on Transportation and called the hearing, questioned the proposal saying that no one is disputing the fact that there needs to be penalties for dangerous road behaviors, but only if raising the fine so significantly made sense and would actually have a deterrent effect.

Cheh also appeared frustrated with DDOT’s decision to publish the proposed rules on Dec. 11, and giving residents only 30 days to comment over the winter holidays when it is difficult for people to review, discuss and analyze the proposal.

“The process to date has been, I think, inadequate to provide the public with a transparent process,” she said. “To date DDOT has not provided the public with any study, evidence or focused explanation as to how it arrived at the particular penalties and fines.”

Cheh asked Dormsjo to explain how the proposed penalties compared to other jurisdictions, whether the fines will actually serve as a deterrent or an appropriate punishment and if the penalties and fines need to be as high as they have been proposed. “Have we sufficiently considered the high fines and the effect on people who may be of modest means?” she asked. “I know that there are folks who say look ‘if you can’t pay the fine, then don’t do the crime,’ but that is too simplistic, and it doesn’t really respond to the idea about legitimacy in the proportionality.”

Since the proposal was made public, Dec.11, DDOT has received 250 comments, many of them in opposition to the new rules, Dormsjo said. He said the agency introduced the proposal as part of a larger plan of action to change bad behavior to contribute to Vision Zero’s plan, but the agency is “open to any other ways to achieve this goal.”

DDOT considered the raising the proposed speeding fines from $300 to $1,000 for those exceeding the limit by 25 mph to deter the most dangerous behaviors.

“Driving at this speed is flagrantly dangerous and unacceptable,” he said. From 2010 to 2014, the District issued 17,379 citations for driving over 25 mph, Dormsjo said. Sixty percent of those infractions were made on city streets and 40 percent on freeways.

The DDOT proposal sets new fines at $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 increase 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.

The public comment period on the proposal has been extended until January 31.