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D.C. finds enforcement shortcomings as it grapples with rise in reckless driving

The city has collected $93 million through a ticket amnesty program that ends this month, but millions of dollars in fines go unpaid

The nation’s capital is known for issuing hefty fines for parking and traffic infractions, but many of those go unpaid each year as the city has few mechanisms to ensure offenders face consequences. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

As the District grapples with a rise in reckless and distracted driving, officials are urging better enforcement to bring violators to account, citing deficiencies in the tools the city relies on to deter bad driving behaviors.

The nation’s capital is known for issuing hefty fines for parking and traffic infractions, but many of those go unpaid each year as the city has few mechanisms to ensure offenders face consequences. Two resources it uses to target violators — towing and booting — have limitations, while the city can restrict driving privileges only on D.C. residents.

Ticketing, booting and towing are not scaring off repeat offenders from breaking traffic laws, D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) said. While issuing tickets to violators is a good strategy, she said, it’s more critical to ensure those tickets are enforced.

“Unfortunately, this is not happening,” said Cheh, who chairs the council’s transportation committee. “As a result of that low level of enforcement, some drivers continue to drive dangerously under the belief that they never will be caught.”

City enforcement includes two crews assigned to the booting of vehicles while a limited amount of tow equipment is directed to mostly enforcing rush-hour parking rules and moving vehicles from the path of road-paving crews.

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Meanwhile, Deputy D.C. Mayor Lucinda M. Babers said the city is owed as much as $500 million in unpaid parking and traffic fines. Maryland residents are responsible for about 40 percent of the outstanding fines while Virginians’ share is about 25 percent.

“We are absolutely looking at putting additional resources on increasing our boot crew,” Babers said. “But there’s always a finite resource.”

To some lawmakers and residents, the data shows reckless motorists are ignoring fines as the city sees a record number of road fatalities. The District has recorded 40 traffic fatalities this year — three more than occurred in 2020 — and it is poised to end the year with the most deaths since 2007, when 54 road fatalities occurred. City data shows more than 4,000 people have been injured this year.

About 550,000 vehicles with D.C., Maryland or Virginia tags have two or more unpaid parking or traffic tickets at least 60 days old and are eligible to be booted, Cheh said. She said many involve dangerous driving: Roughly 5,000 vehicles have tickets for traveling at least 21 mph over the speed limit, another 150,000 for running a red light and about 50,000 have fines for running a stop sign.

The Department of Public Works, which handles ticket enforcement, has two vehicles and two two-person crews assigned to booting vehicles. The teams boot between 36 and 50 vehicles daily, acting director Christine V. Davis said, noting that budget cuts years ago resulted in the division reducing the number of booting crews from 10 to two.

Some critics argue the current level of enforcement covers such a small proportion of vehicles with unpaid tickets that it could take 25 years for eligible vehicles to be booted.

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Babers said the city is working to increase enforcement, including hiring more people for its booting and towing operations, and launching a system in which offenders can release boots after paying fines, which would free up city workers.

Some lawmakers and residents are calling for other strategies, including more coordination within Public Works to target the biggest offenders and vehicles registered outside the city.

D.C. Council member Christina Henderson (I-At Large) said there is limited communication between booting crews and the parking enforcement officers patrolling streets with license plate scanners.

“When a parking enforcement team find a boot-eligible car, there are no extra red flags when that car has serious underlying tickets,” she said. “And there are no automated alerts sent to boot crews to respond to that particular location.”

Mark Eckenwiler, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 6, said this month the city’s ability to boot and tow is “clearly inadequate,” and dedicating additional resources is critical. He suggested new methods, including a bounty system in which tipsters get a reward for directing city crews to vehicles with repeat offenses.

“Reckless and aggressive drivers pose an ongoing threat to the health and safety of District residents,” he said.

The District is ending a six-month amnesty program for scofflaws with outstanding traffic fines this month. As of mid-December, more than 811,000 people had paid outstanding tickets as part of the program, Babers said, which amounts to about $93.6 million in fines.

Overdue parking, photo-enforcement and moving-violation tickets can be paid without a penalty applied until Friday, meaning drivers will pay half because fines on outstanding tickets double after 30 days. The offer also applies to those dating back years.

The program was more successful at collecting debt than similar programs in the past. That success is, in part, because this year’s amnesty was broader, including all tickets while efforts in past years limited the benefit to D.C. residents and restricted it to tickets dating back two years. The last time the city offered amnesty a decade ago, the District had more than $233 million in ticket debt and collected $3.5 million.

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Still, amnesty did little to pressure some of the worst offenders into paying this year. And the number of tickets kept rising, Babers said.

Some drivers have accumulated dozens of tickets for excessive speeding, running red lights and other offenses. While D.C. residents with outstanding tickets are not able to renew a driver’s license or vehicle registration, the city’s only recourse to hold out-of-city violators accountable is towing and booting within city limits. D.C. hopes to negotiate reciprocity agreements with Virginia and Maryland to ensure drivers face consequences when they violate traffic laws in the city.

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More than 3,000 vehicles have accumulated more than 20 outstanding tickets for moving violations in the District, according to data provided to the D.C. Council by the Department of Public Works. About 500 vehicles have more than 40 outstanding tickets.

One Virginia driver has more than 180 moving violations out of 216 total tickets, including fines for speeding and running red lights, Cheh said. Without enforcement of traffic laws, the city isn’t likely to make gains in reducing traffic injuries and deaths, she said.

“If out-of-state drivers think they can drive recklessly without consequences, a number will — and in fact, do so,” Cheh said.