Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

A driver refutes the automated justice of D.C.'s red light cameras

November 28, 2011 - 10:05 AM
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Beware the machines? (Photo: flickr/takomabibelot)

When 45-year-old Chen Lan, known to many friends as Ellen, traveled to D.C. for a job interview last February, she didn't expect the District to stay with and pursue her for the next 10 months. She had reserved a room at a hotel and on February 1, 2011, the night before her interview, she pulled to a stop on New York Avenue, west-bound and right where it meets Florida Avenue NE, not far from the sprawling Wendy's in the middle of that intersection mess.

As she pulled to a stop, a light flashed — preemptively so, she now thinks. The source of the light should be no surprise to D.C drivers. The city installed around 50 red-light cameras throughout the wards starting in August of 1999 after concerns about unsafe driving in the District.

Months later, Chen received a $150 ticket in the mail that alleged she had run the New York-Florida intersection's red light. She paused at the notice, however, and didn't immediately move to pay the ticket. Had she actually run a red light in D.C.? She didn't believe she had, and she followed up by examining the red-light camera video footage made available to her online.

"I looked at the video and said, no, I didn't run through a traffic light," Chen told me. "A lot of the time, when people get the ticket, they just pay."

But Chen wasn't prepared to pay for a violation she hadn't committed. She had left China more than 17 years ago due to another mix-up involving a traffic violation and came to America with hope and renewed faith in government. She was a member of the military here. Surely an appeal process would exist to save her from injustice. She appealed and included the red light camera's own video but earlier this November, she received a notice telling her she hadn't included enough information and her appeal was dismissed. She initially planned, glumly, to pay the $150 ticket in addition to another $10 appeal fee on top of the original amount, but still wonders: Why should she have to pay a ticket when video showed she hadn't committed the crime alleged against her? What lesson would she learn by paying?

"It's the capital of the country I believe so much in!" Chen said with emotion. "I came to a full stop. I did not pass the red light "

But despite Chen's video, police still see driver fault and didn't hesitate about awarding a $150 ticket when I contacted them for comment about red-light cameras and the concerns of a District driver.

"As you can tell from the video, she stopped directly on top of the crosswalk, where there was a pedestrian walking moments before," said Gwendolyn Crump, director of the MPD's Office of Communications, in an e-mail. "D.C. law says when facing a red light, a driver shall not enter a crosswalk or intersection. That is why she got the ticket: for entering a crosswalk when facing a red light."

But should entering the crosswalk cost drivers $150? I'm not so sure that's a penalty equivalent to the crime of running a red light.

Chen's frustration speaks to the broader confusion and difficulty that comes with automating our system of traffic law. Speed cameras have received the most attention for their different stumbles. Earlier in November, residents of the town of Cheverly discovered that one of the Optotraffic speed cameras had reported a bicycle traveling at 57 miles/hour as well as an "invisible vehicle" going 76 miles/hour, among other errors that were considered obvious and maddening. Our traffic system increasingly relies on automation as it grows. The U.S. Department of Transportation will consider mandating a new set of automatic traffic-safety features in cars starting in 2013. The results of one red light camera's citations issued over the course of a day showed that nearly half of the drivers had come to a complete stop but blocked the crosswalk, as Chen did here.

When operating correctly, these speed and red light cameras offer many benefits, their advocates allege, and according to District police, they " have contributed to a dramatic reduction in red-light running at the intersections where they are operational. And fewer violations should translate into lower crash and injury rates among both drivers and pedestrians." D.C. seems to generally support these ideas and the sense of traffic safety that the cameras bring. In an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety poll conducted earlier this year, 78% of D.C. residents supported red light cameras. There's also a real financial benefit associated with these tickets. In the eight posted months of fiscal year 2010, MPD issued more than 57,000 red light camera citations and received more than 52,000 payments. The revenue? More than $4.8 million. 

The perceived traffic injustice, from China to America, still grates on Chen, and she told me she considered calling the mayor with her story. She knows there will never be a perfect system but wants a better way to appeal. To her thinking, anyone with a brain should be able to review the red-light camera video and see that no such traffic violation occurred. She doesn't sweat the $150 cost, exactly. She can handle the expense, but why should see when there's no lesson to be learned? She moved to Ashland, Virginia in recent months but the District still haunts her thoughts and her bank account. After first deciding to pay the ticket, she had second thoughts and appealed again.

"I really hope this can change," Chen told me, "because I don't want to have to move to a third country! ... Every time there's a new victim."

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