The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Violating D.C. traffic laws could soon cost you more

Going 25 mph over the speed limit would get you a $500 ticket under a plan before the D.C. Council. A cyclist who collides with a pedestrian on the sidewalk could pay $100.

A sign warns motorists that a speed camera is just ahead on the 4700 block of MacArthur Boulevard in Northwest Washington. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

If you exceed a D.C. speed limit by more than 25 mph, it could cost you $500; roll through a right-turn-on-red and it will cost you $100; and if you fail to stop for a pedestrian in a crosswalk, you could get a whopping $500 ticket under increases set to be reviewed by the D.C. Council this fall.

Those are among more than two dozen fines that are either the penalties for new offenses or substantial increases to existing penalties under a proposal by D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) that establishes tougher penalties for traffic infractions to deter dangerous road behaviors — chiefly speeding.

The tougher penalties are part of Bowser’s “Vision Zero” strategy to reduce traffic fatalities and injuries and bring those to zero by 2024. Bowser sent the package of new regulations — the result of nearly three years of discussions and public comment — to the council last week for approval before the end of the year. If no action is taken, the new rules will be deemed approved on Dec. 7.

The original plan, unveiled in December 2015, called for fines of up to $1,000 for drivers who exceed city speed limits by more than 25 mph. It was revised twice after intense criticism from motorists and their advocates, who derided the proposal as “arbitrary” and a “cash grab in the name of traffic safety.”

D.C. scraps plan for $1,000 speeding ticket. It’ll only cost you $500.

This final proposal sets more modest increases in traffic fines but in some cases still more than doubles penalties. It also adds new and higher fines for bicyclists and pedestrians who violate traffic laws. Critics, including a lawmaker, say the city has not made a good case to support raising the fines.

“It may look like a good and an easy fix, but all it does is generate more money and not necessarily more safety,” D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) said Tuesday. Cheh, who chairs the council’s transportation committee, had asked the District Department of Transportation to provide support for the fines, saying the city can address safety concerns by making infrastructure changes and other enforcement strategies.

Among the proposed new fines for drivers: $100 each for speeding in school zones and near a recreation or senior center; failing to slow down and get out of the way for an ambulance, fire engine or police car responding to an incident; and failing to yield to a bus reentering traffic.

The proposed $500 fine for going more than 25 mph over the posted speed limit on city streets compares to $300 now; drivers going 25 mph over the limit on highways would face $400 tickets. Officials have said the tougher penalties bring the District more in line with other states. In Maryland, a driver who commits the same infraction can be charged up to $500. In Virginia, it’s a $250 ticket — and a potential charge of reckless driving, which can carry a penalty of $2,500 and jail time.

Rolling through a right turn on red would cost $100, double the current fine, and the $500 fine for overtaking a vehicle that is stopped at a crosswalk or intersection to give pedestrians the right of way would also double from the current penalty.

Several of the proposed increases relate to drivers interacting with pedestrians and bicyclists. The fine for a driver who fails to yield to a pedestrian while turning right on red would be $100 rather than $50; and the fine for parking in a bike lane would increase to $150 from $65. Swinging open a parked car’s door into the path of a cyclist would incur a $50 fine instead of $25.

Some advocates for motorists remain concerned about the city’s motivation for increasing the penalties.

“This is about generating revenue under the patina of traffic safety,” said John B. Townsend II, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. “There is not a shred of empirical evidence or research that proves that higher traffic fines deter bad driving behavior, and the District knows this and ignores the fact.”

But the proposal is backed by advocates for pedestrians and cyclists, two groups that have been lobbying for higher fines and lower speed limits as a way to tackle the growing number of traffic fatalities and injuries in the city. They say tougher penalties could help make roads safer for all users, especially as commuting patterns change, with more people choosing to commute via foot, two wheels and transit.

Advocates, however, say the proposed Vision Zero regulations stalled too long and denounced the increased fines for bicyclists and pedestrians, saying their behaviors are not tied to significant injuries.

“We are glad to see these regulations completed, but we are disappointed that it took someone dying on the street for them to be released,” Robert Gardner, advocacy director at the Washington Area Bicyclist Association said, referring to cyclist Jeffrey Hammond Long, 36, who was struck and killed by a truck in July.

Long’s death sparked a range of emotions among advocates and commuters and renewed calls for better enforcement of traffic laws and a greater commitment to Vision Zero.

The proposal also addresses complaints from motorists that cyclists and pedestrians should also face consequences for traffic infractions. Among the new penalties for cyclists: a $150 fine for a cyclist who collides with a pedestrian crossing the roadway with the right of way, and a $100 fine for a cyclist who collides with a pedestrian while riding on a sidewalk. Riding with headphones or ear buds in both ears would incur a $50 ticket.

Cyclists caught carrying objects, including handheld communication devices that prevent them from keeping one hand on the handlebars, will face a $50 fine, up from $25. Those caught speeding would face a $50 fine, up from $25.

Pedestrians will see some of the steeper penalties, too. The fine for walking into the path of a vehicle or colliding with a vehicle without having the right of way will increase tenfold to $100, the same for failing to yield to an emergency vehicle.

Traffic deaths continue to soar despite cities’ pledges to get them to ‘Zero’

In a Sept. 20 letter to D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), Bowser urged the council to take favorable action on the regulations, saying they are crucial to the city’s plans to achieve its Vision Zero goal. She said the fines provide “a fair yet strong deterrent for exceptionally dangerous behaviors.”

The regulations also require side underride guards for large commercial vehicles registered in the District and designate certain streets near and around senior centers, recreation facilities and other neighborhood zones as 15 mph zones for most hours of the day.

Advocates said the side underride guards — which prevent pedestrians or bicyclists from being pulled underneath a vehicle — could have prevented the death of the cyclist this summer. The man was riding in the designated bike lane when he was struck by a truck making a right turn. The cyclist was trapped beneath the truck, police said.

“It is a little bit late,” Gardner said. “We can’t wait until people die to pass regulations. We just expect more from the city. We expect the city to live up to its commitment.”

After several years of decreases in traffic fatalities, the District has started to see a slight uptick in deaths, coinciding with an increase in walking and biking. Police data indicate that traffic fatalities dropped from 62 in 1995 to 49 in 2005 and 30 last year. Officials attribute the reduction to traffic laws and enforcement practices such as red-light and speed cameras.

But the 30 fatalities recorded last year were up from 28 in 2016 and 26 in 2015. By Sept. 21, the city had recorded 26 fatalities, two more than the same time last year, according to police.

The proposed regulations are likely to go into effect in December unless the council files a disapproval resolution — with the support of the majority of its members. That action would require great effort to get enough votes against the regulations. The most likely scenario, some council legislative experts say, is that the rules will go into effect Dec. 7 with the council taking no action.