Photo by BoyDisappearing on Flickr.

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.

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 Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Surface Transit. 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.