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Task force tries to make peace over cameras; AAA doesn't

Traffic cameras have saved lives, said Lisa Sutter of the Metropolitan Police Department at yesterday's task force meeting on automated enforcement. DC's fatalities declined 69% in 10 years, compared to only 28% nationwide, and MPT believes its speed and red light cameras are the reason.


Photo by waltarrrrr on Flickr.

Still, many residents believe fines are too high, and that their purpose is to plug budget holes instead of make the streets safer. Will lowering the fines change that perception and increase public support for fines, or are a lot of people just unwilling to change their widespread and common behavior that's also illegal and dangerous?

A real solution to this camera angst probably involves lower fines. It also requires driver lobbying groups to start sending more positive messages about the reasons to curb dangerous driving, instead of endlessly playing the victim in front of television cameras.

Traffic cameras work

The task force had its first meeting yesterday. I am a member of the task force, at the request of co-chairman Councilmember Mary Cheh. Sutter presented a number of slides, including this chart of traffic fatalities:

Sutter also relayed a tragic story of an elderly woman killed in a crash that one of their cameras caught on video. A driver blew through a red light and got T-boned. The crash pushed the car up onto the sidewalk, killing the woman, who wasn't breaking any laws and wasn't even in the street.

This is the real human toll of unsafe driving. More people died already this year, just in the District, than in the Metro Red Line crash. We can't ignore the problem.

Can science set the fine?

The other co-chair, Tommy Wells, started off the meeting with a statement that he feels the current fines are too high, and contribute to the public perception that the cameras are a source of revenue rather than a safety tool. Cheh agreed with the goal of revising the fines, but added that they serve several purposes.

One is to simply deter people from "reckless and unsafe behavior." Relatedly, a fine is a kind of punishment for doing something inherently dangerous, as red-light running is, she said. Ultimately, the fine needs to change a culture of lawbreaking, and sometimes a high penalty might be necessary.

Cheh and Wells asked many thoughtful and detailed questions to try to identify a proper level for a fine. Wells pointed out that it could be very helpful if photo tickets included an explanation of why the District is charging what it's charging.

AU Professor Laura Langbein suggested an analysis which would estimate the economic and actuarial cost of the typical crash, then divide that by the chance any individual speeding or red light running would end in a crash, to get an optimal fine. That would peg a fine to the damage the behavior causes. Another approach would be to set the level around what it takes to get people to comply, but it may be hard to determine that scientifically other than through experimentation.

Where is AAA?

The task force included a representative from regional towing-services company AAA Mid-Atlantic, John Townsend. Unfortunately, he seemed little interested in any real meeting of the minds. He didn't even participate in the first half of the meeting, when people were mainly asking questions to MPD and DDOT about the current program. Instead, he left the table for a while to go talk to the press and get himself into news stories on the issue.

Later, Townsend criticized DC's plans to add cameras to catch people who blow through stop signs or recklessly turn across crosswalks where people on foot are crossing. These are serious safety issues in neighborhoods. If cameras can curb unsafe driving as much as they have for speeding and red light running, it can save lives and boost the quality of life in neighborhoods.

DC will only have 2-3 per ward of each type in the coming year, and I'd like to see any bill in the Council around fines also give MPD authority to buy more cameras with some of the money they raise from existing ones.

I also recommended that we discuss how to curb speeding under 10 mph over the limit. When a neighborhood limit is 30, most drivers assume that really means 40. 40 can be a dangerous speed in residential areas. MPD's Lisa Sutter confirmed that while DC law allows MPD to ticket people for speeding less than 10 mph, they are not currently doing that with the automated cameras.

Some cities are lowering the limits to 20 in order to get drivers to stay under 30, but is that the best approach? A $75 ticket for going 32 in a 30 would be grossly unfair, but how about a $5 ticket for going 5 mph over? Or how about a $1 ticket? Can a small "nudge" change the culture from 30-means-40 to 30-means-30?

That also might mean raising some speed limits, if transportation departments have set limits artificially low. James Cheeks from DDOT said that they never set speed limits 10 mph too low because of this, but many commenters believe that at least some jurisdictions do.

Unfortunately, Townsend immediately jumped in to call the idea of any enforcement below 10 mph over the limit "a non-starter." It sounds like he came to the meeting expecting that the only outcome would be to give drivers more of a pass for unsafe behavior.

I agree fines can come down as the number of cameras increases. However, it's not appropriate simply to cater to the whining and lower the fines unilaterally. Will lower fines actually make drivers believe the fines are for safety instead of revenue?

Many speeders will take their cue from their chief enabler, Townsend. He can set an example by agreeing to stop the constant camera complaints if fines come down. He says AAA doesn't condone breaking traffic laws or unsafe driving. Will he start being constructive, or is his real goal just to get attention and feed the egos of those who don't want to change their dangerous behavior?

David Alpert is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Greater Greater Washington and Greater Greater Education. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He loves the area which is, in many ways, greater than those others, and wants to see it become even greater. 

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traffic cameras = revenue generators

by Ironchef on Aug 29, 2012 2:23 pm • linkreport

"regional towing-services company"

Too bad there isn't a posting policy. That is low.

by charlie on Aug 29, 2012 2:32 pm • linkreport

The other co-chair, Tommy Wells, started off the meeting with a statement that he feels the current fines are too high, and contribute to the public perception that the cameras are a source of revenue rather than a safety tool.

Well, then the legislature, i.e. Wells himself, needs to explain his policies better to the public.

by Jasper on Aug 29, 2012 2:33 pm • linkreport

When a neighborhood limit is 30
To clarify: The speed limit in DC is 25 mph unless otherwise posted.

by Gavin on Aug 29, 2012 2:42 pm • linkreport

As I've said before, nudging is an intersting way to avoid drawing lines. And drawling lines is the hard part of any rule making.

And I doubt the chart proves much. There are a lot of correlations that would reduce fatalities. DUI enforcement. Better safety measures in cars. And DC is very analmous when compared to a national average. How much, for instance, has Arlington gone down?

by charlie on Aug 29, 2012 2:46 pm • linkreport

I wonder whether the cameras would be more effective at changing drivers' behavior if they had signs. These could be either signs that specifically alert drivers to the camera or just warn them to drive safely in general. (For the latter, I'm thinking of the my daddy works here signs posted in construction zones, or this sign common in Québec which roughly translates as "watch out for children -- they could be yours.")

For that matter, I wonder how effective signs are on their own at changing drivers' behavior to be safer. I'd guess they work better on highways and rural areas, where there isn't as much visual clutter competing for the driver's attention as in the city. But that's just a guess.

by Gavin on Aug 29, 2012 2:55 pm • linkreport

Here's the most scientific way of evaluating ticket prices I can think of: Take the aggregate value of damage not covered by insurance (statistical value of life not collected by the person's estate, property damage, cost for dispatching emergency services, an estimate value of time lost to additional traffic, etc.). Each ticket doesn't have a fine, but rather earns the offender a "share" of this cost. At the end of the year, you pay your "share." Lots of people breaking lots of laws but causing little damage = small fines. Few people breaking few laws causing lots of damage = huge fines. The fines are automatically tailored to the problems caused. You can subdivide the costs / tickets by area or by type of citation if you want a little more flexibility. No more of this "I feel this is unfair BS." Bad driving causes problems; you're paying your share, no more, no less.

Alternately, you could compare the amount collected by the fines to the aggregate uncovered costs of the accidents. If they're relatively close, the fines are appropriate.

by Jon on Aug 29, 2012 3:06 pm • linkreport

Yep, as I guessed, the numbers are rigged.

http://mpdc.dc.gov/mpdc/cwp/view,a,1240,q,548138,mpdcNav_GID,1552,mpdcNav,%7C.asp

2001 was the high point, 72 fatalities. 2000 had only 52.

I can't find Arlington, this is the closest:

http://www.arlingtonva.us/Departments/EnvironmentalServices/dot/traffic/accidents/images/2004Accidents.pdf

from 2001-2004: it went from 8 to 5 to 4 to 3.

by charlie on Aug 29, 2012 3:10 pm • linkreport

Explain the speed limit of 40 MPH on I-395 in DC after you cross the 14th St bridge? And a new speed camera, hidden behind a bridge that was recently installed in the 40 mph zone?

40 MPH is simply ridiculous.

by Pete on Aug 29, 2012 3:30 pm • linkreport

Yep, as I guessed, the numbers are rigged.

There really is no question that red light cameras save lives. Here is the number of fatalities per 100 million VMT by state and overall from 1994-2010. No state has as big a drop as DC.

Read this study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety which further documents that red light cameras save lives. IIHS, by the way, is funded by insurance companies including AAA Mid-Atlantic.

by Ken Archer on Aug 29, 2012 3:33 pm • linkreport

@Pete

I used to agree with you, having never driven on that section. I just drove on it, had no issue maintaining 40. Yes, there were people flying by me, but just because everyone else is doing it, doesn't mean you should as well.

Perhaps there are a few cameras that could be moved, including this one, however, this camera is not the big meanie that everyone makes it out to be.

by Kyle-w on Aug 29, 2012 3:44 pm • linkreport

Has ticketing reduced the amount of red light running? Isn't that a more important statistic? Additionally, has the number of fatalities at camera locations decreased?

If I throw up a chart of the murder rate, can I also ascribe that to cameras? Until there is proof that the cameras are actually working (as opposed to say, safer cars or safer streets) then there is no reason not to unilaterally lower the insanely high penalties.

I also agree that 40 on 395 is way too low.

by lemon on Aug 29, 2012 3:48 pm • linkreport

[i]Explain the speed limit of 40 MPH on I-395 in DC after you cross the 14th St bridge? And a new speed camera, hidden behind a bridge that was recently installed in the 40 mph zone? [/i]

For whatever reason the pro-camera types feel no need to justify this. Don't hold your breath.

by Boomer on Aug 29, 2012 3:51 pm • linkreport

@Gavin: I wonder whether the cameras would be more effective at changing drivers' behavior if they had signs.

There are signs. Speed limit signs. Stop lights. They're fairly obvious.

All kidding aside, Arlington warns with a gazillion signs that they have red light cameras in Rosslyn, and yet people run red lights like nothing.

There are way too many signs already. People are ignoring them en masse. There is no reason to believe that more signs will help.

Here's 8 in one short:

View Larger Map

And here 16:

View Larger Map

by Jasper on Aug 29, 2012 4:17 pm • linkreport

Explain the speed limit of 40 MPH on I-395 in DC after you cross the 14th St bridge?

Poor road surface, curvy road, numerous entries and exits on the left and the right, lots of merging, poor road signage.

Anything else?

by Jasper on Aug 29, 2012 4:21 pm • linkreport

Is even a basic statistics class required for an urban planning degree? It certainly isn't part of the training of the leadership of the MPD that keeps trotting out this chart to defend speed cameras.

by dcdriver on Aug 29, 2012 4:47 pm • linkreport

Poor road surface, curvy road, numerous entries and exits on the left and the right, lots of merging, poor road signage.

So instead of improving the road surface (and I doubt you have any proof that road surface is "poor") or improving the signage, the solution is to lower the speed limit and trap motorists by hiding a camera.

How about the cameras on 295 by Blue Plains? That road surface is fine, the road is nearly straight, there are signs, and no more than the typical number of entrances and exits (all on the right). Why is that road 70mph in some states but 50 in DC?

by dcdriver on Aug 29, 2012 4:52 pm • linkreport

Why is that road 70mph in some states but 50 in DC?

Residents of the DMV are especially incompetent drivers, and I think most people driving around here would agree with me on that.

It's also my experience that blog commenters are particularly overrepresented when it comes to having some kind of anxiety disorder, so their personal fears tend to predispose them towards wishing that speed limits were lower.

In any case, MoCo's fines for speed camera violations are around $50 or so. They seem to be fine with that, and in my experience driving around MoCo, people obey the speed cameras even with fines half the cost of DC's. So I don't see the justification for DC's fines, which seem excessive.

by JustMe on Aug 29, 2012 5:15 pm • linkreport

[This comment has been deleted for violating the comment policy.]

by ceefer66 on Aug 29, 2012 7:15 pm • linkreport

David,

Who is on this task force? Name and affiation?

by Some Ideas on Aug 29, 2012 7:19 pm • linkreport

@ dcdriver:So instead of improving the road surface (and I doubt you have any proof that road surface is "poor") or improving the signage, the solution is to lower the speed limit and trap motorists by hiding a camera.

Well, how much extra taxes would you like to pay for that?
DCs roads are in abysmal shape, but I don't see how you could easily fix the many entries and exits, leading to the crazy merging and weaving, and get the curves out of that road.

How about the cameras on 295 by Blue Plains? That road surface is fine, the road is nearly straight, there are signs, and no more than the typical number of entrances and exits (all on the right). Why is that road 70mph in some states but 50 in DC?

I am not very familiar with that stretch, but I can make a couple of points.

First is that the speed limit on urban interstates is 55 mph, not 70. Remember, you're not in a state and that has implications.

Second, the stretch is only about 4 miles long, and is placed between the Beltway, with a 55 mph speed limit and DC-295 and the 11th St bridge where the speed limit is (I believe) 45 mph or less. It is not conducive to let people speed up for that short of a stretch. It looks like they're letting you transition from the Beltways 55mph to the further on slower speed limits.

Thirdly, a little math shows that going 70 in stead of 50 saves you 1m23 over the stretch, assuming you're able to maintain that speed the entire way. Wherever you come from, the sheer luck of the draw with traffic lights has a larger impact on your commute. So, what's the fuss?

by Jasper on Aug 29, 2012 8:47 pm • linkreport

"Traffic cameras have saved lives, said Lisa Sutter of the Metropolitan Police Department at yesterday's task force meeting on automated enforcement. DC's fatalities declined 69% in 10 years, compared to only 28% nationwide, and MPT believes its speed and red light cameras are the reason."

Any comparison of a city and the states ("nationwide") will yield nonsense. Compare traffic deaths in DC and a comparable city, e.g., Baltimore, and you will see similar results. (Does Baltimore have many photo enforcement installations? I don't know.) One possibility re cities is that most collisions take place at lower speeds than out on suburban/rural highways, and so the safety measures in cars, such as air bags, are more effective at saving lives.

The discussion really should distinguish clearly between red light cameras (few objections there) and speed cameras (plenty of objections). In the District, only 3% of collisions list speed as a primary cause. Running red lights is a very different matter from driving 35 mph on a minor arterial, such as Park Road. And the driver who "blew through a red light and got T-boned" -- how would a red-light camera have prevented that? Why did he blow through the light? Drunk? Cameras won't fix that.

by Jack on Aug 30, 2012 8:33 am • linkreport

"The discussion really should distinguish clearly between red light cameras (few objections there) and speed cameras (plenty of objections)."

Yep, hit it on the nose.

But the problem with red light cameras is -- properly marked - they work and stop generating revenue for the companies that run them. Hence their need to throw up speed camera instead....

by charlie on Aug 30, 2012 8:51 am • linkreport

It isn't fair to claim the drop in fatalities in the District is the result of these traffic cameras. Other cities without cameras, or even in states that don't allow them, have seen similar drops in recent years.

That said, as someone posted, the study by the Insurance Institute showed that they do improve safety. Here is what I think this task force should address:
-Is it appropriate to have speed cameras on physically divided highways such as 395? There may not be a safety benefit to doing this, and is the speed limit even reasonable here.
-Speed cameras should be used to improve the safety of DC's most problem-prone areas and instersections, where there are frequent red light running and speed issues.
-Revenues should be partially used to improve the physical design of streets, for traffic calming measures that slow speeds to match the posted speed limits; this is fair to drivers and pedestrians.

by neb on Aug 30, 2012 9:42 am • linkreport

Sutter also relayed a tragic story of an elderly woman killed in a crash that one of their cameras caught on video. A driver blew through a red light and got T-boned. The crash pushed the car up onto the sidewalk, killing the woman

The camera was there; it caught the violation; the lady still died. This is good evidence of how having the camera DOES NOT reduce fatalities.

I pains me to consider what happened here, and I offer my sympathies to her family.

by goldfish on Aug 30, 2012 9:54 am • linkreport

The camera was there; it caught the violation; the lady still died. This is good evidence of how having the camera DOES NOT reduce fatalities.

Because the driver was attuned to the idea that he could get away with it if he blew through a red light. Now, drivers know that if they run a red light, they'll get fined, so they don't do that, which over time prevents those sorts of accidents.

by JustMe on Aug 30, 2012 10:52 am • linkreport

@JustMe: You are supposing the driver was trying to get away with something. Probably not: I bet the driver was distracted and just did not see the light.

Ever blow through a light by mistake? I have -- no camera would have stopped me. When this happens there is usually a problem with cuing the driver that a light is coming up.

The red light cameras are effective at discouraging what you think occurred, but not what I think occurred.

by goldfish on Aug 30, 2012 11:03 am • linkreport

People like efficient and effective crime fighting, except when they are the criminals. Imagine the guffaws rags like the Examiner would exhale if drug dealers or corrupt politicians complained that enforcement of the laws they broke was just about raising money from the fines. But as soon as some soccer mom driving a car with more tonnage than a WWI tank gets a ticket costing less than two tanks of gas for behavior that routinely kills people, they throw up some false choice between safety and revenue. We can have both. And the more we can tax undesirable behavior (bad driving) the less we have to tax desirable behavior (labor and sales).

by TM on Aug 30, 2012 11:26 am • linkreport

At least on I-295 and I-395, we need a combbination of the flashing lighted signs that give drivers their speed and (if over the limit) say "slow down" with speed cameras down the road enough every mile or so, so that only those who ignore the warning get the ticket.

I drive about 4-5 mph over the speed limit on DC interstates, but I feel the pressure of traffic to speed up. Why must I be forced to choose between my responsibility to society to obey the law and my responsibility to fellow drivers to not be the bottleneck. Raise the speed limit or enforce the law--don't force make idiots of those who obey the law.

by Jim T on Aug 30, 2012 11:40 am • linkreport

@ jimT:I drive about 4-5 mph over the speed limit on DC interstates, but I feel the pressure of traffic to speed up.

Just ignore the pressure. I do. Once you get over it, you'll have lovely quiet drives over the areas highways. Just make sure you're not in the left lane.

Why must I be forced to choose between my responsibility to society to obey the law and my responsibility to fellow drivers to not be the bottleneck

You don't. Just follow the law. People really won't hit you. They're gonna tail you whether you drive 55 or 75.

If you want to make the world a better place, start by leading by example. That is something you can do.

by Jasper on Aug 30, 2012 11:50 am • linkreport

Just ignore the pressure. I do. Once you get over it, you'll have lovely quiet drives over the areas highways. Just make sure you're not in the left lane.

It is soooo much fun to drive the speed limit in front of a cop. They get soooo annoyed.

by goldfish on Aug 30, 2012 11:53 am • linkreport

It is soooo much fun to drive the speed limit in front of a cop. They get soooo annoyed.

True.

Can someone explain to me why a lot of people suddenly go below the speed limit when they see a cop? Come on people, you won't get a recommendation for driving slowly.

by Jasper on Aug 30, 2012 12:17 pm • linkreport

What does "annoyed" mean? What do the police do? Do they shout? Make obscene gestures? When I'm driving near a police car I usually just see the police car, and you can't perceive emotion on the outside of a car.

by David Alpert on Aug 30, 2012 12:25 pm • linkreport

@Dave Alpert -- it is pretty easy to conclude that they are annoyed, when tailgate until they can floor it to pass you.

by goldfish on Aug 30, 2012 12:43 pm • linkreport

@ jimT:I drive about 4-5 mph over the speed limit on DC interstates, but I feel the pressure of traffic to speed up.

Just ignore the pressure. I do. Once you get over it, you'll have lovely quiet drives over the areas highways.

It's not as simple as that. Driving with the flow of traffic is safer (even if it's at a higher speed) than being a bottleneck. So, while you're enjoying your lovely quiet driver, you're inadvertently making the road more dangerous for everyone.

With regards to traffic speed, there's a tradeoff between faster speeds and safety. Yes, the faster you go, the less safety you have but we all have a tolerance for risk and that's why speed limits are not set at 1mph. We're willing to tolerate a little risk in order to have speed limits higher than the "zero risk speed".

There's no single "right answer" as to what is the optimal level of risk (and hence speed) because it's a matter of personal preference. Using the principle of democracy, if the vast majority of road users would like the speed/risk tradeoff set at a higher speed (and there are no issues with infringing on the rights of other road users such as peds/bikes) then the speed limit should be set at that higher level.

by Falls Church on Aug 30, 2012 1:01 pm • linkreport

Is there any actual evidence it's unsafe to drive below the speed of traffic? I think this is just a canard that many people latch onto to justify a desire to keep speeding.

Even if driving slower leads to more collisions than faster (which I suspect isn't true), going slower also makes those collisions which happen far less fatal.

Also, even if safety is worse if 1 person is driving slow and others are driving fast (which, again, I doubt), it's safer for all if everyone drives at a safer speed instead of most people speeding. If even 5% or 10% of drivers started obeying speed limits, it would make the prevailing speed on the road for most drivers the lower one.

I've been trying to drive the speed limit more, and tried it a few times on the GW Parkway to and from Alexandria. Yes, almost everyone wants to drive faster; the speed limits are not very fast on the parkway. But it doesn't feel unsafe. People behind slow down, and a lot of them pass in the other lane. But people are changing lanes and passing no matter how fast you're going.

For me, it changes driving from an activity of intense concentration where I'm always thinking about how fast I can take each curve to one where I've set the cruise and can devote my attention to watching for other vehicles, obstacles, etc. I find I notice the cyclists more, and in some places the trail is quite close to the road.

I also disagree that if a majority of people want to go faster they should be able to. Some people find driving more intimidating and are less comfortable. Why shouldn't their needs be respected? To say that everyone needs to speed because most people do is overriding the needs of a more vulnerable group to please the majority. That's not how decisions should be made.

Anyway, this is all about freeway driving. When you're talking about any non-freeway, now there are a lot of different road users and it's especially important for the traffic to be slowing down so that drivers can see, avoid, and not kill pedestrians and cyclists.

by David Alpert on Aug 30, 2012 1:27 pm • linkreport

@ Falls Church:It's not as simple as that.

Yes it is.

So, while you're enjoying your lovely quiet driver, you're inadvertently making the road more dangerous for everyone.

Nup. It's speed that kills. And if, in fact, I slow down some people, then I've made them more safe as well, even if they did not want to be safe. Thank you very much.

we all have a tolerance for risk and that's why speed limits are not set at 1mph.

That risk is not set at 37,000 people dying in traffic and a couple hundred thousand getting hurt. As long as you're not one of them or their families, the risk is acceptable. If you are one of them, it's not. [I guess if you die it doesn't matter very much either, depending on one's views of what happens after death].

There's no single "right answer" as to what is the optimal level of risk (and hence speed) because it's a matter of personal preference.

Ehm, no. We have speed limits to prevent utter chaos. And those speed limits are set depending on the many circumstances on the road as determined by traffic experts after deliberate study. A study much more detailed than the quick whims of the casual driver. Are those limits perfect? No. But they're much better than the poorly informed judgement of the driving public.

Using the principle of democracy, if the vast majority of road users would like the speed/risk tradeoff set at a higher speed (and there are no issues with infringing on the rights of other road users such as peds/bikes) then the speed limit should be set at that higher level.

True. And that's what happened in VA where gov McDonald increased the speed limit on rural highways frmo 65 to 70 mpg. Nobody is stopping you from petitioning the government to increase the speed limit. However, until the speed limit goes up, please drive safely and follow the democratically set acceptable level of risk.

by Jasper on Aug 30, 2012 1:28 pm • linkreport

Isn't the standard for speed limits supposed to be some threshold that most of the drivers feel comfortable driving?

If you want the speed limit to be 40mph on 395, then turn 395 into the sort of street that 40mph is appropriate for.

by JustMe on Aug 30, 2012 1:48 pm • linkreport

And once you have all your different types of cameras installed on every square inch of the city, you'll be telling us we need a task force of Citizen Behavior Regulators to follow us each around for a week, documenting and fining us for everything we do wrong.

You know what's more dangerous than speeding? Talking on a cell phone and/or texting while driving. But every day I get in my car, I see absolutely no enforcement of that law. Why aren't you more committed to getting people off their phones? Once that has been achieved, you can go after people who speed.

by Brian on Aug 30, 2012 2:02 pm • linkreport

@ JustMe:If you want the speed limit to be 40mph on 395, then turn 395 into the sort of street that 40mph is appropriate for.

And how is that not the case for I-395 in DC?

BTW: I was on vacation last week, and was reminded how much street design can determine how you drive. I was in an unfamiliar place with very poor speed limit signage in a rental car, but found myself driving just about the speed limit (+/- a few miles) whenever I did see a speed limit sign.

One thing that really "helps" is having narrower roads. Makes it much harder to speed.

by Jasper on Aug 30, 2012 2:07 pm • linkreport

David, you (and many others) assume that speed limits actually indicate a maximum safe speed, so anybody "speeding" -- even by a few mph, perhaps -- is compromising public safety.

In DC, I see little evidence of that. Most speed limits here are "administrative", and have no actual engineering or safety evaluation behind them. Somebody (sometimes the District Council) just decided once that thus-and-such sounded good, and that's what the limit is, forevermore.

The problem isn't speed cameras. It's speed limits, in particular, unreasonably low speed limits. If speed limits were sensible, and supported by real thought and analysis, there would be little argument. Too many speed limits here are arbitrary, set by somebody's decree, not by any actual assessment of safety.

Try driving 25 mph on Beach Drive, where passing is impossible. That'll win you a lot of friends. And is 25 mph really safer than the average speed of traffic on that road, 30 mph? We're not talking about highway speeds here.

by Jack on Aug 30, 2012 2:11 pm • linkreport

Jack: I agree some speed limits need to change. I'd raise some on freeway type roads and lower many on neighborhood roads. I'm just responding here to the argument that just because most everyone else speeds on a road, a priori it's ethical and "safe" to speed too.

But at the task force meeting, someone asked DDOT's James Cheeks how they set speed limits, and basically he had no good answer.

I was trying to go the speed limit on the GW Parkway as a test, and going slower had a lot of advantages, but it also was pretty clear that speed limit was very low. Nevertheless, I think drivers are going to whine about speed limits no matter what. That doesn't mean we shouldn't set them better, but I'm not sure it will change much.

by David Alpert on Aug 30, 2012 2:19 pm • linkreport

but I'm not sure it will change much.

People support red light cameras because it's a bright-line rule.

Likewise, I don't know that people object to getting a speeding ticket if they're caught doing 10-over in a 60mph zone on an urban interstate.

However, people most definitely object to getting a ticket for doing 10-over on an urban interstate with a 40mph limit on a roadway designed for speeds well in excess of that.

It changes because one feels just, the other does not.

As a fan of automated enforcement, I don't want to see a speed trap hurt the public support for enforcement.

by Alex B. on Aug 30, 2012 2:35 pm • linkreport

Red light cameras will have the same fights as speed cameras.

The law is that you have to clear the intersection before it turns red, but it sounded like the camera will only ticket you if you don't get into the intersection before it turns red. So that's the equivalent of the 10-mph buffer.

But then people will argue that the yellow light is too short, even if MPD insists it meets the federal rule for how long a yellow light is supposed to be. Someone will say it's unsafe to stop short even in the amount of time the yellow provides, and so the yellows should be even longer, and longer, and so on.

Townsend was arguing against all kinds of cameras, including new ones that will have bright line rules.

I'm all for making changes to ensure there is public support. I just want to make sure that a change actually will yield more public support as opposed to just move the goalposts and still lead to a comparable amount of griping.

by David Alpert on Aug 30, 2012 2:52 pm • linkreport

I just want to make sure that a change actually will yield more public support as opposed to just move the goalposts and still lead to a comparable amount of griping.

That's fine.

My point is this:

Complaining about a ticket for doing 70mph in a 60mph zone - unjust griping.
Complaining about a ticket for running a red light and making up some excuse about how the yellow phase seemed short - unjust griping.
Complaining about a speeding ticket for going 50 mph on an interstate freeway designed for that speed - justified griping.

I don't think it's moving the goalposts. In those situations where the griping is just, the onus is on DDOT and MPD to change the situation. For example, the 395 speed cameras - either raise the speed limit there or physically re-design the road the lower the design speed.

by Alex B. on Aug 30, 2012 2:59 pm • linkreport

@Jasper et al: While there are some problems with speed itself, I think that both safety and driver anxiety are a function of the variation in speeds. The greater the variation in speeds, the more lane changes we see--and the more really hazardous and stupid lane changes we see.

Artificially low speed limits that are poorly enforced tend to increase the variation in speed as some people obey the speed limit while others do not. By poor enforcement, I mean either no enforcement or the type of enforcement that causes some people to slow down and others to not slow down (e.g. hidden speed cameras).

Conversely, well-enforced speed limits, even if a bit lower than many drivers prefer, can minimize the variation in speeds. Good enforcement requires both ticketing and pronounced warnings.

In some cases, higher speed limits can also decrease the variation in speed, though as David points out, there will still be a few people whose skill, comfort, or car mandates a slower speed.

I'd also put in a pitch for higher fines and points for those who speed in the right lane on multi-lane roads. On many expressways, the right lane seems to be reserved for those who either are driving the speed limit of going 10 mph faster than those in the left lane. On urban arteries like Rhode Island Ave, speeding in the right lane creates a greater hazard to cyclists than in the other lanes.

by Jim T on Aug 30, 2012 3:26 pm • linkreport

DC's use of speed cameras is completely out of hand and DC is frankly squandering its good will among its neighbors with this agressive, mercenary, and predatory "photo enforcement" program.

And it's not just the opinions of neighbors from MD and VA that should concern DC.

Picture this:

Driver from 'anytown USA' comes to DC for a visit to show the kids the nation's capital.

Visitor makes rolling "Idaho stop" past a stop sign at 1 mph. Visitor goes back home.

Three weeks later, visitor gets a $50 photo ticket from DC in the mail.

Same visitor gets another photo ticket for $150 later in the week for doing 50 mph on 395 - a highway built to national interstate 70 mph standards. Our visitor didn't see the 40 mph sign because he/she was looking at the directional signs for their exit. In fact, he/she very likely thought "heck, it's 55 everywhere else so it's probably the same here".

Driver pledges to never visit or spend money in DC ever again. Plus, they tell 5 friends who each tell 5 friends, and so on...

Aware of DC's "special relationship with Congress", our visitor decides to gets even by contacting his/her Congressmember, who just might be hostile to DC (fat chance, you say). The next time DC statehood, voting rights, appropriations, or a DC commuter tax comes up in a committee, Mr./Ms. Congressmember has the matter tabled. The matter never even gets discussed, much less voted upon.

This scenario isn't implausible.

And at the rate it's going, DC just might eventually kill their supposed golden goose. It's not too far-fetched to imagine some member of Congress eventually intervening in DC's photo enforcement program. All it will take is ONE sufficiently-angered Senator or Representative to get Congress to say "enough" and pull the plug. It's not a matter of "if". It's a matter of WHEN. Especially when you multiply our hypothetical visitor by a few hundred. Or by several thousand.

Laugh if you want. Get mad at the messenger if you must. Given DC's track record of in-your-face traffic enforcement tactics, it's just a matter of time before the wrong people get set off and remind DC who's really in charge here. Given the current strategy of "a speed camera on every hill, corner, and curve", I give the photo enforcement program another 2 years before it's either radically curtailed or killed.

That will be a shame because red light cameras - and even speed cameras (when actually deployed for safety reasons) -are a good thing. But DC's focus on using speed cameras as cash cows will eventually spoil the whole thing and get the good tossed out along with the bad.

by ceefer on Aug 30, 2012 3:28 pm • linkreport

I'm just responding here to the argument that just because most everyone else speeds on a road, a priori it's ethical and "safe" to speed too.

I think that's pretty reasonable, actually, unless pedestrians are a major factor.

by JustMe on Aug 30, 2012 3:31 pm • linkreport

@ceefer -- the fine is $300 for 15 mph over the limit.

But your scenario is not plausible, because the US senators and representatives all started out in state legislatures, know what it is like to try to enforce laws they voted on.

by goldfish on Aug 30, 2012 3:45 pm • linkreport

@Alpert: Is there any actual evidence it's unsafe to drive below the speed of traffic? I think this is just a canard that many people latch onto to justify a desire to keep speeding.

Yes, there is. It's called the Solomon Curve:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solomon_curve

Here are the highlights:

He found that the probability of being involved in a crash per vehicle-mile as a function of on-road vehicle speeds follows a U-shaped curve with speed values around the median speed having the lowest probability of being in a crash.[5] Although typically called the Solomon curve, the U-shaped curve has also been referred to as the Crash Risk Curve.[6]

In 1968, Julie Cirillo conducted a similar study of 2,000 vehicles on interstate highways that addressed speed variation’s impact on crashes that involved two or more vehicles.[7] The Cirillo data represented a U-shaped curve similar to the Solomon curve

Reporting on these results in 1971, academics West and Dunn confirmed the findings of Solomon and Cirillo,[11] but found that crashes involving turning vehicles accounted for 44 percent of all crashes observed in the study and that excluding these crashes from the analysis greatly attenuated the factors that created the U-shape of the Solomon curve.

Notwithstanding the many studies over the years, in testimony before the Ohio Senate Highways and Transportation Committee on June 10, 2003, Julie Cirillo, Former Assistant Administrator and Chief Safety Officer for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), testified that "up to the present time there has been no evidence to alter Solomon’s original finding that variance from the mean operating speed is a major contributor to accidents."[14]

Both views support the fact that the seminal research underlying the Solomon curve shows that the greater the difference between a driver’s speed and the average speed of traffic – both above and below that average speed – the greater the likelihood of involvement in a crash.[17] Consequently, many states and safety organizations advise drivers to “drive with the flow of traffic”.[14]

[Deleted for violating the comment policy.]

by Falls Church on Aug 30, 2012 5:20 pm • linkreport

I also disagree that if a majority of people want to go faster they should be able to. Some people find driving more intimidating and are less comfortable. Why shouldn't their needs be respected?

I agree that a democratic system can't be "tyranny of the majority". We need to respect the rights of minority views when the harm to them from implementing the majority view is great or the harm is related to their membership in a protected class. However, a feeling of simply being "less comfortable" at higher speeds does not count as a great enough harm to justify overriding majority rule.

Your better argument would be if significant numbers of people due to age or disability were unable to drive safely at the prevailing "majority rule" speed. I don't think I buy that but it would be a stronger argument than simply saying some people are "less than comfortable" at higher speeds so we should set speed limits to accommodate their comfort level instead of what the majority want.

by Falls Church on Aug 30, 2012 5:27 pm • linkreport

This is all about likelihood of a collision, not safety. That's a big difference. Collisions can be minor property damage or someone can die.

It's like with the red light cameras. Some people who want to be able to drive through them with impunity say that the cameras increase the number of collisions, but that might be a short term thing, and plus it reduces the really dangerous t-bone collisions at the cost of a few more rear-end fender benders.

If some people start driving slower instead of speeding when everyone else does, that forces some more passing in the short run and maybe more collisions, but may slow everyone down in the longer run.

by David Alpert on Aug 30, 2012 5:27 pm • linkreport

@goldfish,

My hypothetical driver was only going 50 - 10 moh over the 40 mph limit. My fine amount was purely a guess.

As for my scenario being not plausible because of congress members being former state legisltors, that is nether here nor there. They don't set the DC speed limits. They did however approve the initial funding for the traffic cameras. I'm not sure if they still do, but Congress has a way of telling DC what it can and can't do.

See the annual song-and-dance about DC's budget initiatives for reference. If Congress can prevent DC from spending its own money on abortions and needle sharing, they can darn well shut off the speed cameras on the highways if they so choose.

Think I'm wrong? Dream on.

by ceefer on Aug 30, 2012 5:39 pm • linkreport

We have speed limits to prevent utter chaos. And those speed limits are set depending on the many circumstances on the road as determined by traffic experts after deliberate study.

I agree we should have speed limits. I don't agree that the best way to set them on auto-only freeways is based on traffic experts. The speed limit should be set primarily based on the prevailing tolerance for risk by the majority and expert opinions should be secondary to that.

To recap, we agree that:

1) As a general rule, people should obey speed limits

2) Speed limits should be set using a consistent set of principles

3) In urban areas, with lots of peds, residences, etc., speed limits should be set low and rigorously enforced. As Ceefer66 said in the GW Circle post, even he would want a speed camera at GW Circle.

We disagree that:

1) When the prevailing average speed on an auto-only highway is greater than the speed limit, it is *ethical* to drive at the average speed. The fact that it is *safer* should not be disputed based on the well supported Solomon Curve.

2) The primary principle used to set speed limits on auto-only freeways should be average risk tolerance/appetite (manifested by average actual speed of drivers), and expert opinions should be secondary.

by Falls Church on Aug 30, 2012 5:39 pm • linkreport

@Falls Church: Speed limits should be set using a consistent set of principles

Which are...?

I suppose this is just like Potter Stewart's views on pornography, I'll know the right speed limit when I see it. This is opening a can of worms. By not spelling the rules out, DDOT can arbitrarily set a speed limit -- which it does when pressured.

by goldfish on Aug 30, 2012 5:50 pm • linkreport

@ceefer -- no, I hope that what you describe will come to pass. Fortunately I have never received a $300 photo-ticket, but I have seen one, and was appalled.

by goldfish on Aug 30, 2012 5:53 pm • linkreport

[This comment has been deleted for violating the comment policy.]

by Falls Church on Aug 30, 2012 6:28 pm • linkreport

@goldfish,

Thanks.

There's a thin line between enforceing traffic laws to save lives and property and predatory entrapment for the purpose of generating revenue.

DC has crossed that line.

by ceefer on Aug 30, 2012 7:15 pm • linkreport

Policymakers should base decisions on facts rather than ideology. Facts are within easy arms reach of even the busiest policymakers.

by Falls Church on Aug 30, 2012 8:11 pm • linkreport

@Falls Church: Speed limits should be set using a consistent set of principles

Which are...?

My opinion is that the guiding principle should be what the majority thinks is the optimal tradeoff between risk and speed. Others believe the guiding principle should be the expert opinion of road engineers.

While both sides disagree on the specific guiding principle, at least we can all agree that speed limits should be set based on a consistent set of principles -- unlike how they are set today.

by Falls Church on Aug 30, 2012 8:15 pm • linkreport

@Falls Church: even if you could quantify "risk" -- something like (say) a motorist is 0.025% likely to get into a crash for a given type of road, per vehicle mile traveled, at 45 mph -- identifying what the "majority" thinks the optimal tradeoff between risk and speed is probably unmeasurable. This will not get a speed limit that can be objectively defended for Pennsylvania Ave SE (which currently 30 mph).

That was a good try, but I think this will always take judgement; and politics is definitely in play.

by goldfish on Aug 30, 2012 8:27 pm • linkreport

AAA is more than a "regional towing-services company". Far and above that, AAA are a full-spectrum travel services company with chapters in all 50 states. It's like calling Microsoft a tablet computing company.

So yes, they are approaching this from a different viewpoint, and they are acting as advocates for the driving constituency. I don't begrudge them that, and I split often from their positions, but David, your writing seems to have a strong bias against AAA, and it really grates in your otherwise excellent analysis.

Did you try reaching out to John Townsend at the meeting? Or for comment in this article? It is not apparent that any of that happened.

GGW's motto is that Washington is great, but it could be greater. I feel that some of the writing at GGW is great, but that it could be greater.

by Jack Love on Aug 31, 2012 11:23 am • linkreport

I support traffic cameras, but I have to agree with a lot of people I usually disagree with, using Distrcit-wide traffic fatalities as a proxy for increased safety due to Automatic Traffic Enforcement is extremely bad science. There are just too many other variables. Maybe people are just driving less. If MPD wants to make the case that cameras are making things safer, they're going to have to do better than this.

@ceefer This scenario isn't implausible.

Wow that's scary. But I think you've stopped too short of the real threat. After Congress ignores our requests for statehood, the next step is to vote away our rights to even vote for local officials - and to instead return to pre-home rule days. Having turned back the clock once, and still hurting from the deep wounds of the traffic camera days, I think we can all agree that what next happens is to turn all DC residents into slaves. After a few years, you'll naturally have a slave rebellion during which one group (no one will know who) will launch nuclear weapons on the other. This will be misread by other nations who will join in, and then we'll have total global thermonuclear war and the extincting of humans forever. But it doesn't end there. The sudden influx of dead souls to the gates of heaven and hell will overload the processing system, resulting in rioting in the afterlife and - I think you'll agree - the eventual assassination of God. Without God all history will be wiped away and none of this will never have existed, which will suck because I just got my home stereo set up the way I like it.

@Falls Church, I agree that we need a well-defined process for deciding what speed limits should be. But I don't agree that it should be the 85% rule or some other 'this is how people drive' methodology. People are bad at assessing risk, and if we start seeing a high number of crashes in an area, we should lower the limit, even if most people think they can drive faster. And there are other concerns, driving fast creates more pollution. Driving fast can, counter-intuitively, make traffic move more slowly. And when fast driving results in even a small uptick in crashes, those crashes can completely wipe out the gains that the fast driving gets you.

In fact, that may be the justification for low highway speeds. Driving slow may result in enough fewer crashes that average speed goes up (and it can help traffic move more slowly), especially where traffic is so often transitioning to slow, crowded city streets and back ups frequently stretch onto the highway.

But yes, we are in agreement on the following:

1. We need speed limits
2. They should be set by a method that can be explained and understood.
3. They should achieve goals like safety, congestion relief, equal access to roads etc...
4. Speed limits should be enforced, and traffic cameras are good at that.

by David C on Aug 31, 2012 12:06 pm • linkreport

Three other possible reasons for the enhanced reduction in traffic fatalities in DC:
-- as time goes on, older cars in the fleet are replaced with cars with better safety features, such as air bags and anti-lock brakes. As the wealth in DC is increasing faster than elsewhere in the US, the fleet replacement rate is increased, which contributes more to the decline in deaths;
-- likewise improvements in road design -- such as better signalling, and lane upgrades at intersections -- reduce the number and severity of crashes. Since the increase in wealth, DC can spending relatively more money lately on such road improvements than elsewhere in the US;
-- increases in fuel costs encourage people to drive less, which is enhanced in DC because there are other viable means of getting around.

All of these factors are in play. While I think they have helped, to claim that red light and speed cameras are the sole reason for the reduction in traffic fatalities does not survive scrutiny.

by goldfish on Aug 31, 2012 1:07 pm • linkreport

DCist has more relevant data:

"Sutter insisted that safety is the goal, and that the cameras are having an effect—in those sites that have gotten cameras, she said, violations dropped between 60 and 80 percent within two to four months."

by David C on Aug 31, 2012 1:53 pm • linkreport

This is embarrasing. There are still people that believe speed limits "save lives"? On highways. Based on what- that graph of fatalities. Wow. Take a statistics 101.

Actually this post is great, because it explains how we go to these revenue generating illegal laws and monitoring situations in the first place.

PS: the argument that people would complain about something so therefore this is okay is possibly the worst argument of all time.

by Mike Brown on Aug 31, 2012 3:54 pm • linkreport

I don't find the number of fatalities particularly relevant to the question. Find any random resident of a suburban cul-de-sac in America. Ask them if they mind if we drive 45 mph on their residential streets. Not acceptable. Even if the number of fatalities doesn't go up significantly.

As I've said a few hundred times before, even leaving aside fatalities, having people driving at high speeds through residential neighborhoods sucks, and diminishes the residents' quality of life. And it's perfectly legitimate (and constitutional, to answer the oddball "revenue generating illegal law" construct above) to do so.

Anyway, in the context of DC proper, as we add more residents, and more and more of DC becomes "residential" you might want to get used to it, because you're going to be seeing more of it.

by oboe on Aug 31, 2012 4:21 pm • linkreport

"regional towing-services company"

Personally, I think this is brilliant. The "all car all the time" crowd likes to use petty names for those who are looking for fairness for bikes, buses, etc., so I think they can suck it up and deal with a little of their own medicine.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Sep 1, 2012 10:40 am • linkreport

David,

Thanks much for the work you do on such an important issue. I agree the cameras are impacting the stats and applaud the effort. I lived in the UK for 3 years and cameras are everywhere - some visible, but others are not. Driving around the UK cities felt much safer to me as a motorist, bicyclist, and pedestrian. DC ... not so much.

People need to accept that living in a major metro area includes the realization that typical rural highway speeds are implausible and dangerous. Until people change their behavior, I say cover the entire area with traffic cameras. I've been hit with a few tickets myself and it works - I rarely speed anymore around DC.

by TC on Sep 5, 2012 9:46 pm • linkreport

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