Photo by takomabibelot on Flickr.

Are DC speed camera fines too high? One resident who created a petition, some reporters, and AAA all seem to think so. Lowering fines actually might be the right policy, but only once DC installs more cameras, as promised for over a year, to catch unsafe driving behavior.

Even now, most instances of speeding, running red lights, blocking crosswalks, turning right on red without stopping, not yielding to pedestrians, and other unsafe behaviors go unpunished. If a substantially larger number of cameras started enforcing these violations at important intersections, we might gain the same safety benefit even with much smaller fines.

Fox 5 and DCist recently reported on a petition asking DC to lower the fines on its speed cameras. I’ve created another petition also suggesting lower fines, but only once DC installs the cameras we’ve waited so long for.

The stories, like many press accounts about traffic cameras, are fairly one-sided, assuming that all readers drives, not walk or bike, and all of the drivers care more about having to pay a ticket than about being safe on the roads. Fox reporter Brian Ackland starts out with the leading question, “Is it about safety or is it really about making money?” Then, he talks only about the money and not at all about the safety.

Like too many reporters, he also quotes AAA and nobody else. There’s one paraphrase of something Mayor Gray said in “a recent interview” on the opposing side. There are actually many groups in DC, like the Pedestrian Advisory Council, which have advocated and testified around cameras, and could provide a meaningful perspective from those who like the safety effect of cameras.

Still, the original petition has a point. A $40 fine in Maryland seems to get people to drive slower. Does DC need higher fines?

It would make sense to lower fines, if DC adds more cameras to catch more unsafe behavior. The Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) issued an RFP in June to buy more cameras, including ones that can detect drivers blocking crosswalks, not stopping before turning right on red, and not stopping when another vehicle stops to let a pedestrian cross. Some of the cameras will be mobile, so MPD can periodically move them to hot spots where residents have complained about dangerous driving.

Unfortunately, the RFP is still stuck in procurement, and it’s been well over a year since MPD publicly talked about getting these cameras. Whichever agency or official currently needs to sign off, for whatever step it’s at, should move it forward swiftly, and start the process to get even more cameras. Then, it may make sense to lower the fines.

How does the level of fines relate to the number of cameras? To achieve the goal of deterring unsafe driving, we can either hit drivers with huge charges when they’re caught, or just catch them more often.

Criminologist Mark Kleiman has done substantial research on the tradeoff between the severity of punishment and the certainty of getting caught. A long prison term might deter someone from a crime more than a short prison term, but a far better deterrent is simply arresting people more quickly and more frequently when they commit a crime.

Kleiman studied fairly complex policing strategies to achieve this in criminal law, such as focusing intense police attention on a certain area for a period of time. For traffic, it’s simple. With cameras, it’s possible to enforce more of the laws against unsafe driving behavior, more of the time.

At a recent policy forum, I met Kleiman and asked him what he thought of cameras. He said the ideal enforcement system would be one where running a red light, or speeding, triggered a fine every time, but the fine was fairly low.

We’d need to make sure it’s high enough that wealthier people don’t just decide to constantly run red lights (which is dangerous) and then pay the extra cost, but it doesn’t need to be very high. Experimentation could determine the lowest level of fine that actually deters the dangerous behavior.

And what of the argument that this is all about money? Lower fines but more cameras would prove it’s not really about money. So would a policy of keeping the camera revenue out of general spending. Camera revenue used to go into a special fund to pay for traffic safety programs. Mayor Gray ended almost all such funds when he took office, but keeping the fund would ensure that nobody is trying to soak speeders just to pay for other priorities.

Regardless, DC needs to break the infuriating logjam in procurement. These cameras pay for themselves through tickets. In a for-profit company, a division that brought in revenue that covered costs would get to keep growing. Government budgeting doesn’t work that way, and MPD can’t simply take the money from camera tickets and buy more cameras. They need the Mayor and Council to allocate budget to buy and maintain the cameras, even when the effect is to return all the money to the budget for the next year.

Mayor Gray and the DC Council: Please put more cameras on the streets. Then, let’s seriously look at whether we can still deter unsafe driving with lower fines.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). 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 lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.