Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

D.C. traffic cameras could multiply, ticket drivers for a growing list of infractions

February 2, 2011 - 11:20 AM
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The District of Columbia currently has a network of around 50 red-light cameras and 30 speed cameras, nabbing thousands of drivers for traffic violations while putting millions of dollars into city coffers. Under an initiative now moving forward, the city’s photo enforcement program would be greatly expanded – and it would start citing drivers for a host of infractions other than speeding and red-light running.

The D.C. police are hoping to install smaller, more mobile cameras in neighborhoods around town, catching drivers who fail to yield to pedestrians at crosswalks, block the box at intersections, or even fail to fully stop at stop signs, among other potential violations. The portable units would probably be battery- or solar-powered and affixed to small concrete pads set up around town, making them far more versatile than the permanent streetside cameras or cruiser cameras now in use. Their modest size would allow them to be used in areas where cameras couldn’t go before.

According to Lisa Sutter, the head of the D.C. police department’s photo enforcement program, the plan is in the final stages at the city’s contract and procurement office, which will be soliciting proposals from contractors. Some of the technology still needs to be developed, but she says the new cameras could be rolled out in as little as six months.

“I want [drivers] to modify their behavior. I’m not trying to just give out tickets,” Sutter said after explaining the new cameras at a community meeting last night. “If there are enough of [the cameras] out there, then people have the attitude, I’m not really sure where it is, so I’ll slow down everywhere, or I’ll stop at every stop sign, or there’s a pedestrian so I’ll stop. That’s the attitude I want.”

D.C.’s traffic enforcement cameras have been a contentious issue since the first ones were installed in 1999, and the expanded program will almost surely be controversial. Many drivers – particularly commuters coming in from Maryland and Virginia – view them as a surreptitious taxing mechanism designed purely to bring in revenue.

"D.C. already has one of the most aggressive programs out there," said Lon Anderson of AAA Mid-Atlantic. "The folks running this program have not demonstrated that they’re acting on safety concerns. They’ve demonstrated an ability to make huge amounts of money."

But smart-growth proponents and progressive transit advocates tend to appreciate how the cameras discourage speeding. A new study released by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety concludes that red light cameras are preventing crashes and saving lives.

“D.C. has had a long time with photo enforcement, and people accept it as a valid technology,” said Sutter. When Sutter hears from citizens at meetings, they tend to either love the cameras or hate them passionately.

Pedestrian safety advocates would certainly appreciate the new initiative, which will put cameras in more residential areas and let the city get more specific in its citations – or, in Sutter’s words, “break things apart, be more granular.”

The department would be continuously moving the cameras around to keep drivers guessing, and they’ll be accompanied by more signs telling drivers to obey the speed limit and stop for pedestrians. With the new technology, the units may be able to detect when a pedestrian has come to a crosswalk, then capture the plates of drivers who fail to yield. “I want to stigmatize [drivers] blowing past pedestrians,” Sutter said.

Drivers who create gridlock by getting stranded in crosswalks and intersections at red lights – a common problem around town – could also expect to be receiving tickets in the mail.

The District has one of the most liberal photo-enforcement laws in the country, permitting the city to cite drivers for just about any moving violation. The breadth of the new program will be unlike any other that Sutter can think of.

D.C. councilmember Phil Mendelson, who appeared at the community meeting in Cleveland Park where Sutter spoke last night, said the more mobile kind of camera would be more effective from a safety standpoint. “I wish that the program was much more mobile,” said Mendelson, who chairs the judiciary and public safety committee. “I think drivers learn where the stationary cameras are and they moderate their behavior at that intersection. I think it would be more powerful with enforcement if program was more mobile.”

Mendelson said his only other criticism of the program is that it’s “been perceived as being about revenue rather than safety.”

Is it about revenue? “Generally not,” he said.

Although violations like failing to yield to a pedestrian can cost as much as $250 in the District, the new citations done through photo enforcement would probably be somewhere on the order of $50 or $100, like the red-light and speeding tickets done with cameras.

“Five years ago, the technology wasn’t there. But now it is,” said Sutter. “We’re not restricted [by the law]. We can enforce anything.”

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