Tragically, people are getting killed on District streets, two in one day in February. Experts acknowledge that stopping these deaths is a major challenge. In something of a reversal from decades past, as demographics and living patterns shift, it’s also a serious problem in suburban areas such as Montgomery County.
What is the D.C. Council doing about it? Adding police? Investigating thoroughly? No. In fact, in the budget the council passed this month, Chairman Phil Mendelson dedicated considerable future revenue to ease punishment for those whose dangerous actions put others at risk, while restraining the police from expanding enforcement.
I’m not talking about murder and similar violence, though violence in our city is no laughing matter. This problem strikes far closer to home for most of us: distracted driving, speeding, unsafe right turns on red or through crosswalks, red-light running and other forms of unsafe driving.
Mendelson stuck language into the budget mandating that if Congress allows states to tax Internet sales and the District passes such a tax, the money go toward lowering fines for speeding and running red lights. The District could wind up charging more to residents who shop online to give a break to residents and visitors who break the law. Meanwhile, other language would force the police to write a report justifying each location before deploying traffic cameras, even where residents are clamoring for the police to make their neighborhoods safer.
“Wait a minute,” you might be thinking. “I speed a little, too, and sometimes try to make it through a light that turns red just as I get there. I don’t mind enforcing traffic laws, but some of the speed limits are kind of low, and I know I’m driving safely. Aren’t these cameras just a ploy to get money?”
These are indeed the main criticisms. Let’s tackle them.
While most of us break traffic laws some, or even much, of the time, it’s not a good thing. I do it, too, sometimes. I shouldn’t. In some places, nearly everyone is exceeding the speed limit, which creates peer pressure. Most of us also think we’re above-average drivers. Unlike the children in Lake Wobegon, everyone can’t be above-average. Research shows that most drivers believe they are more skilled than they are.
We need to break this cycle. We need to find a way to change a culture in which otherwise law-abiding people consider posted maximum speeds to be suggestions or, at best, assume that the “real” limit is 10 mph above what’s posted. In a residential neighborhood where the limit is 25 mph, 36 is quite fast. Every 10 mph faster a car is moving equates to a 40 percent greater chance that a pedestrian who is hit will die.
Those who watch “Mad Men” know that at one time our society considered drinking and driving perfectly reasonable. It took many years and concerted public information campaigns to persuade people otherwise.
Unfortunately, our discourse about this issue has veered far, far away from safety.
That’s in part because our leaders have gotten used to using cameras to plug holes in government budgets. As taxes go, this is like a “sin tax,” similar to high taxes on cigarettes. But it’s not ideal public policy. Anne McCartt of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety recently pointed out to The Post’s Ashley Halsey III that if people stop speeding, the revenue will vanish, as it should, since the goal is to stop speeding.
The D.C. Council’s effort to lower fines isn’t a bad idea — if it goes hand in hand with more cameras. Criminologists have explored the link between “certainty” (the likelihood you’ll get caught if you break a law) and “severity” (the level of punishment you’ll face). Certainty is far more effective at getting people to follow laws. It makes sense. If the punishment for shoplifting rises from 30 days to a year but the chance of arrest remains tiny, it just won’t have the same effect as would adding video surveillance that makes it very hard to get away with the crime.
If we look at speeding as a societal ill, the best way to reduce it is to have hundreds more traffic cameras than we do but have each one result in a low fine. In short, more certainty but less severity. That was the approach Council members Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) took with a bill last year. Unfortunately, Mendelson pushed to remove important parts of the bill that would have dedicated the revenue to safety programs and wider enforcement. That removed any nexus between severity and certainty in the final bill; speeders got the fee reduction they wanted, but there is no assurance that any higher certainty will come along with it.
The prerequisite to solving this problem in a dispassionate manner is for all stakeholders to agree, first, that we have to stop speeding and other dangerous road behavior, and, second, that more enforcement but less punishment is a good way to do it. Unfortunately, after the council passed its bill to lower fines (without the higher-certainty provisions), AAA Mid-Atlantic launched a major push in the media attacking cameras.
Many of us speed and maybe sometimes push the envelope on red lights. Outcry from those who get caught has led politicians to treat these laws as optional in a way that other laws are not. As long as our leaders and other influential citizens think the biggest problem with speeding is that they might get caught and have to pay, we’ll be stuck in the “Mad Men” era. And people will die.
David Alpert is editor of the blogs Greater Greater Washington and Greater Greater Education.
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