Photo by takomabibelot on Flickr.

A task force will study whether to lower the fines for DC’s traffic cameras. What is the right level of fine, and how can DC policymakers use science to determine the right level that maximizes safety?

Councilmember Mary Cheh (ward 3), co-chair of the task force, has asked me to serve on the task force. Other members will come from the pedestrian and bicycle advisory councils, AARP, AAA, and the Center for Court Excellence. The group will meet at least two times in late August and September. I’m told the meetings will be open to the public and there will be opportunities for public comment during the first meeting.

Any discussion of speed camera fines needs to flow from a simple principle: the purpose of the cameras is road safety, not revenue. Speeding, running red lights, and blocking the box are dangerous. In many neighborhoods, traffic is the biggest public safety threat and DC must take it seriously.

In recent years, DC has raised fines during its budget process, to plug gaps without raising any taxes, and expanded speed cameras in the same way. That might be the only time it’s politically palatable to some, but when fines are too high, it erodes public support for enforcement.

Therefore, we need to base any recommendation on scientific evidence about what level makes the streets safest. There is a tradeoff between the certainty of getting caught committing a crime, and the necessary level of punishment to deter lawbreaking. When a camera replaces occasional human enforcement by police, the certainty of getting caught goes up. Therefore, the fine can go down.

Moreover, research has shown that low severity, high certainty enforcement—exactly what traffic cameras achieve—is more effective. In other words, people are more likely to follow a law if they know they will get punished, even a small amount, most of the time they do.

What is the right fine for a fixed camera?

The first question is, how much does a fine need to be in order to get drivers to follow the law? Today, the fines in DC range from $75, for speeding up to 10 mph over the limit, to $250 for 26-30 mph over the limit.

Maryland has a $40 fine for 12+ mph over the limit, which does indeed seem to work. That would suggest that $40 may be sufficient, at least for the 11-20 range.

What about lower? What would happen with a $5-10 fine? At that range, some people, especially ones with more money, might conclude that they are in a hurry and just treat it as a toll. It might be interesting to try something like this in the 1-10 mph over the limit range, which some jurisdictions (like Maryland) exclude entirely.

Exempting slight speeding is not really good policy, as it just means every driver treats a 30 mph sign as meaning 40 mph limit, and 10 extra mph of speed makes a pedestrian about 40% more likely to die in a crash. On the other hand, many drivers have become conditioned to believe that such speeding is fine. What about charging a very small amount for such an infraction, to acclimate people to the idea that it’s both illegal and dangerous, but gently?

Is the right fine the same for a mobile camera?

MPD also has a number of mobile cameras, and is buying some more. Mobile cameras move around to spots where there is danger and/or resident complaints but which don’t have fixed cameras. They publish a list of locations that could have mobile cameras, but don’t cover all of them every time.

Should the fine be the same? On the one hand, each camera catches about as many people as a fixed one. On the other hand, though, the certainty factor has now dropped for mobile cameras. Instead of a driver being sure they will get caught if they speed in one area, now they are only somewhat likely. Does this cut down on compliance? If so, does the fine need to be a little higher?

Should the fine automatically change as more cameras come in?

DC could lower fines somewhat today, and then lower them more once there are more cameras. It would make adding cameras less of a revenue play. DC can add cameras, but that automatically cuts the fines, meaning that the budget stays closer to constant.

If a deal in the Council lowers fines for all time, groups like AAA that complain about cameras might crow about getting the fines lowered and then still fight any more cameras. If some of the reduction ties into more cameras, then this can function as a sort of pact between safety advocates and camera opponents: the fines come down, but in exchange, more cameras go in.

Whatever the level, it’s important to monitor compliance and adjust the rates if they’re not working. If a fine is too low and people aren’t obeying the law, it needs to go up. The council could simply revisit the issue every so often, or could even set up a rule that every so often, perhaps twice a year, the fines change based on criteria, like going up if people are speeding too much or down if they are speeding very little.

What do you think the right fine should be, and how can we make it most scientific?

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David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. 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.