ANY ASSESSMENT of the District of Columbia’s automated traffic enforcement program must begin with this fact: Even as the city’s population increased by 13 percent in the past decade, fatalities resulting from traffic collisions dropped by more than 70 percent and injuries fell by one-third.
That the drop — even more impressive considering the increased reliance on travel by foot, bicycle and scooter — occurred amid the increased use of cameras to catch speeders, red-light runners and other traffic scofflaws is no coincidence. The widespread and consistent enforcement of traffic laws made possible by photo enforcement has caused drivers to slow down in the District and obey the rules. While it is important to fine-tune the system to make it as fair and accurate as possible, suggestions to limit or curtail the program should be rejected.
The police department’s use of automated cameras came under criticism from the D.C. Inspector General in a scathing report examining how the city issues parking and traffic tickets. The inspector general pinpointed some issues — mainly instances of tickets sent to the wrong drivers — that should be addressed. Indeed, according to the administration’s response to the audit, corrective fixes are underway. There is now a new level of review for when vehicle registration documents indicate that a license plate and the car it’s attached to don’t match, and there is new technology for use when multiple cars are in an intersection.
But the report wanders off-base in suggesting that the automated cameras are more about producing revenue than promoting safety and in questioning the placement of cameras in certain neighborhoods and the need for more. The efficacy of the cameras in improving public safety is clear. Police report a reduction in speeding and increased compliance with traffic laws since the program began with red-light cameras in 1999 and speed cameras in 2001. And, as Chief Cathy L. Lanier pointed out in her rebuke of the report, speed plays a disproportionate role in whether a crash will be fatal. A pedestrian hit by a car going 30 miles per hour has an 80 percent chance of surviving, but if the car is going just 10 miles per hour faster, the pedestrian has more than an 80 percent chance of being fatally injured.
The D.C. Council will hold a hearing Sept. 24 to examine issues raised by the report. It should determine whether additional steps are needed to improve the system, but it also needs to make clear that the cameras are here to stay. The best way for drivers to avoid getting a ticket remains to obey the rules.
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