Greater Greater Washington

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DC Council bill would lower traffic camera fines

Councilmembers Tommy Wells (ward 6), Mary Cheh (ward 3), and Marion Barry (ward 8) just introduced a bill to lower traffic camera fines for low levels of speeding, blocking the box, stop signs and more.


Photo by BoyDisappearing on Flickr.

The bill will drop fines to $50 for certain offenses:

  • Speeding up to 20 mph over the limit
  • Blocking the box
  • Not yielding to a pedestrian in a crosswalk
  • Not coming to a complete stop at a stop sign
  • Not coming to a complete stop before turning right on red
  • Turning right on red when not allowed
There are 2 things explicitly not on this list: speeding more than 20 mph over the limit, and running a red light.

At the task force meetings, participants expressed a desire to keep higher fines for these. They felt that more excessive speeding is far more reckless and not something one can chalk up to not paying close attention, or a road designed for a too-high speed, or something like that.

For red lights, the task force heard evidence that while there isn't a relationship between the size of speed fines and compliance, there is one for red lights. Many felt that running red lights is something drivers more clearly recognize is wrong. I've still heard drivers argue that running a red light is better than coming to a stop because of the risk of getting rear-ended, or dispute the timings of yellow lights, but MPD's Lisa Sutter said that she is focusing on enforcing the more egregious red light running.

DC is going to start rolling out cameras for some of these infractions which don't have cameras now, like not yielding to pedestrians. Many drivers don't understand that it's wrong to make a turn quickly across a crosswalk and block a pedestrian's path. MPD has promised a substantial public information campaign, but an appropriate level of fine will hopefully ensure that there isn't too much backlash against stopping this very dangerous behavior.

Bill proposes 30-day warning period

Under the bill, every vehicle will get one warning period. The first time the vehicle gets an automated ticket, MPD will send the owner a notice about the ticket and more information on the kinds of infractions that cameras catch. They will then get 7 days after the letter gets mailed, or 30 days after the initial violation, as a grace period.

I had suggested an approach like this in the meetings, because some people have said they got 9 speeding tickets all in a couple of weeks and then found themselves owing over $1,000 before they even found out about the first ticket. If the purpose of the program is to stop speeding, there's no point in giving someone multiple tickets at once.

On the other hand, this could significantly cut into revenue, especially since most violations are from vehicles that only violate once. Many of those might be casual visitors to the District, and one could argue both sides about whether we ought to give expensive tickets to tourists who drive recklessly.

There won't be a separate warning for speeding versus blocking the box; a driver just gets one warning, total. Shared cars and rental cars won't get new warnings for new drivers.

Half of revenue would go to safety programs

One of the most important provisions of the bill is one dedicating half of the revenue from the camera program to safety programs. Some of the revenue can go toward MPD buying new cameras. This is critical, because the best way to reduce unsafe driving is to have greater "certainty of enforcement"a higher chance of getting caught in more places. More cameras is what justifies lower fines.

It took MPD years to get budget approval to buy the upcoming set of cameras. For the program to really improve safety, that has to change, and this bill would make it easier for MPD to buy more cameras.

Money will also go toward educating drivers, possibly setting up a traffic safety unit at MPD, or projects at DDOT to redesign the roadway. The best way to cut down on speeding is to design a road that gives drivers subtle cues that a slower speed is appropriate, instead of one that encourages faster speeds.

Hearing is November 5

Councilmember Cheh already has scheduled a hearing for November 5, 11:00 am in room 412 of the Wilson Building, 1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW. You can sign up to testify using this form.

What do you think of the bill?

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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$50 for going 44 in a 25 mph zone, and lowering the chance of survival from a hit pedestrian from 80% to 20%. That's a pathetically low fine.

by Jasper on Oct 16, 2012 1:59 pm • linkreport

If you're going to lower the fine, you should also be lowering the threshold for getting a fine.
Was there any talk of getting these tickets out to people in a more timely manner? Isn't there a strong relationship between the time the infraction takes place and the consequences?

by thump on Oct 16, 2012 2:04 pm • linkreport

I assume the old fines hold if handed by an actual MPD officer?

by drumz on Oct 16, 2012 2:12 pm • linkreport

Good start, all money should just go into the general fund.

by charlie on Oct 16, 2012 2:22 pm • linkreport

Will there be heightened penalties for repeat offenders? If you consistently drive 17 mph over the speed limit, it's dangerous and you ought to be fined more than $50.

Will the notifications only be mailed? If they could send emails as well -- at least to vehicle registrations with an email address on file -- that'd be even faster.

by Gavin on Oct 16, 2012 2:23 pm • linkreport

Agreed. 44 in a 25 should be way more than $50. Alternatively, the person who is doing this speeding should be caught 4-5 times over the span of their trip through our city, which turns into a $250.

If we are going to cut fines in half, we should double, or triple the amount of cameras.

by Kyle-w on Oct 16, 2012 2:33 pm • linkreport

Like most folk I am unable to attend a hearing occurring on the middle of a weekday. Is there any mechanism to submit written testimony, is my previously sent email (from during the bill's development) adequate, or is it an in-person only sort of civic engagement?

by Bossi on Oct 16, 2012 2:50 pm • linkreport

@Gavin

DC has a registration system to be notified of infractions via email. However, the registration system itself in onerous and requires you to receive a ticket before you can register. On top of that, it requires a pin to be mailed to your house in order to verify your identity.

One would think that a better system would be possible, and that verifying your billing address with an associated credit/debit card would be a better way to verify people.

by Adam L on Oct 16, 2012 2:55 pm • linkreport

The best way to cut down on speeding is to design a road that gives drivers subtle cues that a slower speed is appropriate, instead of one that encourages faster speeds.

The cynical me says this will meet the same fate as Cheh's previous attempt to change the law to allow for a minimum District speed limit of 20 mph. It's easy to find political support for giving drivers a lollipop. Not so easy to implement things that are going to be seen as adding to congestion (i.e. road diets, etc...)

I'll take it a bit further and predict we won't see any speed limit enforcement in our neighborhoods until either the law changes and allows a 20 mph speed limit, or MPD stops giving scofflaws an 11 mph cushion.

by oboe on Oct 16, 2012 3:00 pm • linkreport

oboe,

and of course that solution also doesn't fix the speeding problem today so while it'd be nice to have woonerfs accross the district that is still years down the line. So lets remember not to let people hold the idea of enforcement hostage over the idea of eventual street calming.

by drumz on Oct 16, 2012 3:13 pm • linkreport

The correct plural of woonerf is woonerven, not woonerfs.

by Jasper on Oct 16, 2012 3:18 pm • linkreport

Noted. Thanks for the info.

by drumz on Oct 16, 2012 3:20 pm • linkreport

If this is all about safety, why is not yielding to a pedestrian part of the lower fees? I'd say doing something that directly endangers the life of a pedestrian should have more than a $50 fee, particularly if that's part of the justification for keeping the fees high for running a red light or excessive speeding.

by jaybeas on Oct 16, 2012 3:27 pm • linkreport

Lets remember not to let people hold the idea of enforcement hostage over the idea of eventual street calming.

Sure, but the implication here is that if we cut enforcement today, then we get street calming later. I think it's more likely that we're going to see enforcement curtailed, but that it won't hasten street calming or enforcement on neighborhood streets.

There's something galling about the fact that, when you drive out of the city to places like Cheverly, MD, you see a functional photo enforcement regime that is actually in place in residential neighborhoods, often with a posted speed limit of 20 mph. Meanwhile in DC we have people who live in Cheverly driving 35-40 mph in 20 mph zones, and no relief in sight.

by oboe on Oct 16, 2012 3:37 pm • linkreport

Marion Barry represents Ward 8; I assume your assertion that he represents Ward 6 is a typo. http://www.dccouncil.washington.dc.us/council/marion-barry.

by Bill on Oct 16, 2012 3:43 pm • linkreport

@Adam L, the citations are sent to the vehicle's registered owner, right? Seems like the DMV could just add an "email address" field on vehicle registration forms. Or collect it on RPP applications.

by Gavin on Oct 16, 2012 3:50 pm • linkreport

@Gavin-Requiring an email address at the DMV would work for DC residents. But, I'm guessing that a majority of the tickets issued in DC involve cars that do not have DC plates.

by Jimmy on Oct 16, 2012 3:54 pm • linkreport

This makes no sense to me at all.

The problem they seem to be attempting to address by lowering fines are complaints from people who don't like paying fines for violating the law.

But this lowers many of the fines to nuisance fees that are barely more expensive than a parking ticket.

And failing to stop on red or at a stop sign should not be a nuisance fine as those are both violations with potentially serious public safety implications including threats to ones life.

The only lowered fine I can see making sense, as someone earlier referenced in the comments, is a lower fine for speeding in what is currently the slack zone (which folks seem to assume is 11 MPH) so sure go ahead and start fining people for going 6 MPH over the speed limit. But above that there needs to be a rapidly graduated system of increased fines and I have no problem hitting people for $250 for going 20 MPH over the limit.

What Cheh and Wells really ought to put their energy into is reforming MPD and getting some answers as to why MPD issues so few citations for moving violations and relies entirely on cameras for enforcements.

Most large police forces have dedicated traffic enforcement divisions and presumably those divisions issue enough citations to operate at a profit.

But in DC it is like pulling teeth to get any sort of sustained traffic or pedestrian safety enforcement.

Have Cheh or Wells asked MPD how many $250 citations MPD has issued for failure to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk? I bet it is very few but it is a violation that MPD could assign every last officer to and still only catch a handful of violators.

Same thing with the law banning hand held cell phones. Has MPD ever really vigorously enforced that law? I've never met anyone who got a ticket and clearly almost no one who drives worries about getting ticketed.

If there are in fact issues with the placement of some cameras (and I have always been skeptical of that) then they should concentrated on that and improving the warning system is a welcome change.

But otherwise this strikes me as a giveaway to the suburban Courtland Milloy's who get most of the tickets and do most of the complaining while the rest of us have to hope we don't get run over by an aggressive driver gunning it through our neighborhoods.

Shame on Mary Cheh and Tommy Wells for this capitulation that will not make our neighborhoods safer and also hurts the cities bottom line.

by TomQ on Oct 16, 2012 4:21 pm • linkreport

If we are going to cut fines in half, we should double, or triple the amount of cameras.

If we are going to double or triple the amount of cameras, we should cut fines in half.

by ah on Oct 16, 2012 4:50 pm • linkreport

"They will then get 7 days after the letter gets mailed, or 30 days after the initial violation, as a grace period. "

Is it the later of the two dates? Because 7 days barely seems enough to get mail sometimes, and would rather undermine the purpose of the 30-day grace period if the letter went out on Day 2.

by ah on Oct 16, 2012 4:53 pm • linkreport

+ 1 million to Jasper. It is "criminal" to equate going 20 over the speed limit to 5 mph by charging the same fine. I can see a 5-12 fee of $50 and significantly more for 13-20, and way more for 21+.

And Jasper provides an evidence-based justification for why to charge differentially, based on the risk imposed by driving faster.

+ 1 million to Jasper. Repeat offenders should get add'l penalties.

I was inclined to go along with this task force thing because of the outcry from drivers about this system. (I meant to write a letter to the editor of the Gazette, when the Mayor of Greenbelt discussed camera-based fines in terms of "not being like DC where cameras are everywhere." It's news to me.)

But obviously the task force was pretty weak in terms of how rigorously it addressed the issue. I didn't attend the meetings, don't know how good of staff support they got, and haven't read the report. But this isn't very impressive.

by Richard Layman on Oct 16, 2012 5:58 pm • linkreport

sorry the second props were supposed to be to Gavin.

by Richard Layman on Oct 16, 2012 5:59 pm • linkreport

Has anyone come across the speed camera in the 2200 "block" of K Street? I use quotes on "block" because the camera is located at the exit of a vehicular tunnel, below the level for local traffic and pedestrians. I believe the speed limit for the tunnel has been set at 25 MPH. I find the placement of this camera very confusing. I am interested in the idea of whether cameras can or should be used for safety enforcement, but it is hard to understand why a camera on K Street would be put right outside a vehicular tunnel, which should arguably have a higher speed limit than the main roadway, as opposed to that camera being placed a few blocks away in a pedestrian-heavy area, such as at the entrance to the Farragut North Metro Station. This seems like an awfully odd location for a speed camera on K Street, in attempting to focus on safety.

by resident on Oct 16, 2012 6:23 pm • linkreport

Fixed the typo. Barry represents ward 8. I was copying and pasting and forgot to adjust it.

by David Alpert on Oct 16, 2012 6:38 pm • linkreport

There are pros and cons to this bill which I think net out to a slight positive but it could have been adjusted to be much better.

PROS
* More speed cameras (because some ticket revenue will go toward cameras)
* Brings fines roughly in line with MD/VA (although MoCo is only $40)

CONS
* No distinction between going 60mph on DC395 vs. doing 45mph on a neighborhood street. That shouldn't be the same fine.
* No explicit policy of focusing the location of cameras on ped/bike safety
* No removal of cameras from DC's interstates

The problem they seem to be attempting to address by lowering fines are complaints from people who don't like paying fines for violating the law.

The problem they are addressing are penalties that have become disproportionate from the crime. If the certainty of being caught increases, then the penalty needs to decrease to retain the same proportion of crime to punishment.

by Falls Church on Oct 16, 2012 7:26 pm • linkreport

Lowering the fines doesn't make sense. Either the speed cameras are appropriate or not.

IMHO the cameras are set too strictly for many marginal infractions and the threshold does need to be raised. Otherwise we appear to be a speedtrap just looking for revenue.

But the vast increase in pedestrians and bikes makes it imperative that actual speeds be lowered from what is too dangerous now.

I rarely see a speed sign in DC and personally think that a much greater number of such signs would do more to lower actual speeds than cameras, although they might also diminish ticket revenue.

Keep the cameras and the current fines but add many more speed limit signs.

by Tom Coumaris on Oct 16, 2012 7:30 pm • linkreport

$50 for going 35 mph in a school zone?! I think Comrade Cheh is losing it.

by Bob on Oct 16, 2012 8:19 pm • linkreport

Tom C. -- for years I have suggested that gateway signs be posted at the main entry points to the city stating that unless posted otherwise, speed limits on city streets are 25mph. Some arterials are 30, like Georgia Ave., and in some places 35mph.

I didn't realize that the freeway speeds are less than 55mph. That should be adjusted probably. It's a logical complement to changes in the speed camera program.

Falls Church's comments are of course, good too. The comments get to the point that is so true of most DC legislation. It's half-a**ed, not thorough, not based on rigorous and complete frameworks. I'd be embarrassed to put my name on it.

(The taxi stuff is another example. Most DC Council initiatives on transportation have these kinds of failings.)

by Richard Layman on Oct 16, 2012 8:55 pm • linkreport

Tom C -- oops, the reason such gateway notice signs are so important is because in the metropolitan region, for the most part, even in neighborhoods, the minimum speed limit is 35mph. (The Town of Chevy Chase is an exception. There the speed limit on at least some residential streets is 20mph.)

by Richard Layman on Oct 16, 2012 8:56 pm • linkreport

@resident
I am interested in the idea of whether cameras can or should be used for safety enforcement, but it is hard to understand why a camera on K Street would be put right outside a vehicular tunnel, which should arguably have a higher speed limit than the main roadway,

The K Street tunnel dumps right back out onto the regular street. The camera is there to prevent people from zooming through the tunnel at an excessive rate and then ending up at that speed on the normal surface street. The tunnel should not have a higher speed limit, there is no reason or benefit to speeding up to 35-40mph for 1200 feet just to slow down again - you create rubberbanding traffic and more danger to pedestrians at either end of the sunken section.

by MLD on Oct 17, 2012 8:11 am • linkreport

"On the other hand, this could significantly cut into revenue, especially since most violations are from vehicles that only violate once."

The fact that this is even a consideration is troubling.

by Scott on Oct 17, 2012 8:19 am • linkreport

...especially since most violations are from vehicles that only violate once.

So if you actually look at the data vs the constant whining, it seems like there are a few very vocal people who keep getting tickets - apparently because they are too dumb to slow down - and a majority who get one ticket and then learn.

So why are we listening to the loudmouth fools who can't figure out how to control their lead feet?

by MLD on Oct 17, 2012 8:46 am • linkreport

@MLD

Totally missed the point. The point is that profit motive should not be a consideration in safety enforcement. If profit motive is a consideration, this may actually be compromising safety.

by Scott on Oct 17, 2012 9:05 am • linkreport

One more comment. If DC wants to bring it's laws in line with surrounding states, it should fine speeding more than 20 mph as reckless driving.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reckless_driving#Virginia

by Jasper on Oct 17, 2012 11:14 am • linkreport

The problem is a problem of believability.

DC started the red light and speed camera program by shady means.

They allowed Lockheed Martin to dictate to them the yellow light times on all red light intersections, as a contract prerequisite.

The result? We have some VERY short yellow light cycles.

Every traffic design guy in the world will tell you that's unsafe.

But it's done to increase the number of red light tickets.

Ditto on the placement of speed cameras. When DC put in the camera on NY Ave in front of the Arboretum they then immediately lowered the speed limit. But ONLY on the part in the camera zone. They left it the same before and after, and on the traffic going the other way.

When they put in the camera on the on ramp tunnel to the freeway, under the National Mall on 9th ST, they did similar. They lowered the limit ONLY in the area the camera covered. This, at the bottom of a hill where even good drivers are going to naturally gain a little speed.

And the placement on 295 and 395 and similar large roads is clearly designed for $$, not for safety reasons.

I'm not opposed to the use of cameras. But it should be done openly, transparently, and not with the intention of tricking citizens into a technical infraction.

Also, remember all the big promises of how this would free cops up to patrol neighborhoods?

How'd that work out?

Last, I think you will find that there will be a major backlash if there isn't some way to put some common sense into this.

Citizens that get a pricey ticket because they accidentally went one foot into a crosswalk at 2 am on a deserted street at a poorly designed intersection red light aren't going to be happy. Especially when they realize that ticket is reported to their insurance agency, and they can pay hundreds a year more in insurance forever.

A real cop could look at that situation and realize it's not worthy of a ticket.

The machine, run by corporate interests that get paid per ticket? Not much common sense going to happen there.

by Hillman on Oct 17, 2012 11:25 am • linkreport

This is a really bad bill. I'm angry that anyone would even consider lowering fines for failing to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk. That's really dangerous, the existing penalty is already too low, and this bill would make it even lower.

While the other changes are less egregious, they're also bad. Lowering fines and adding warnings is moving the wrong direction. The bill sends the message that the Council doesn't care about drivers breaking the law, and that's the wrong message to send.

I do think the existing system could use some changes. In particular, speed limits should be set at a more reasonable level (e.g., having a 35 or 40 mph speed limit on a limited-access highway is ridiculous). And road design should be better. But this bill doesn't seem to be doing any of those things. And lowering fines doesn't solve those problems.

by Rob on Oct 17, 2012 11:58 am • linkreport

It's a mistake to assume that the posted speed limit is a rational specification of a "maximum safe speed". Practice in DC has been to allow 10 mph over the posted limit, the threshold for what is designated "aggressive speeding". Correspondingly, posted limits are set 10 mph below this actual enforced limit. Traffic speed measurements show that the average speed of vehicles in free-flowing traffic in DC is generally a few mph above that posted limit.

Hence, setting a $50 fine for speeds up to 20 mph over the posted limit means a $50 fine for up to 10 mph over the actual, enforced limit. Combined with a high probability of being ticketed, this is a pretty reasonable policy. Drivers matching the average speed of traffic will be ignored, as they are now. Drivers substantially exceeding that average speed will be penalized. Good deal.

Of course, it would be better if posted speed limits were the real speed limits, corresponding to the threshold for unsafe driving, and were set accordingly. But they're not.

by Jack on Oct 17, 2012 12:50 pm • linkreport

Perhaps I should note, by the way, that in my 38 years of residence in DC, I've never gotten a speeding ticket here. And I doubt that I ever would, because I'm that pokey oldster that you hate being caught behind.

by Jack on Oct 17, 2012 12:52 pm • linkreport

Fine for failure to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk capped at $50? Please.

I guess I'll just have to do more than $50 damage to your car, then.

by Dave Stroup on Oct 17, 2012 6:49 pm • linkreport

David:

In your meetings and interactions on this issue was there ever any discussion of the yellow light timing issues and the artificially lowering of speed limits?

You can see my heinously long post above to see my concerns in more detail.

by Hillman on Oct 18, 2012 9:44 am • linkreport

Hillman: MPD insisted no yellow lights have been shortened. They don't control those, DDOT does, and DDOT said the cameras weren't in their minds at all or they didn't even know where they would be; they just set them based on traffic engineer standards.

About speed limits, yes, they are doing a study to review speed limits and figure out where they should be changed. Howard University is leading it.

by David Alpert on Oct 18, 2012 10:09 am • linkreport

David:

Thank you.

Can you confirm that the private company monitoring the red light cameras has no say in the yellow light timing?

And my concern about speed limits is twofold. First, some existing limits are simply too low.

But also I cited two examples of speed limits just in the camera zone being set even lower when the camera goes in.

Was that an issue addressed?

by Hillman on Oct 18, 2012 10:25 am • linkreport

It's a huge amount of discussion that doesn't ever ask the question, is there really a serious problem that requires all this effort, discussion and all the investment in more cameras (instead of a few spot cameras)? The discussion more often refers to the potential revenue gains. And there is nothing about the cut for the private companies behind the cameras business; the additional spending on adjudication procedures; and the general change in how the subjects of electronically policed DC feel. I don't see a massive problem of pedestrians being cut off. Hey, how about the jaywalkers that block traffic? Maybe we should put out cameras for them? Could make a mint in Adams Morgan on the weekend. As a driver, biker, walker, I'd rather just chip in another couple hundred bucks in taxes rather than than support all of this (which of course inevitably affects the poorest the hardest).

by paul on Oct 18, 2012 10:57 am • linkreport

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