Photo by Wayan Vota on Flickr.

This morning, DC Mayor Vince Gray proposed some changes to the District’s speed camera fines. It seems to be an attempt to stave off more significant changes in a bill from Tommy Wells and Mary Cheh, which is having a hearing on Monday.

Gray’s plan would lower fines for speeding up to 10 mph from $75 to $50, though MPD is generally not writing tickets for speeding at this level (though the law lets them if they choose). Speeding from 11-20 mph over the limit would decrease from $125 to $100.

Meanwhile, Gray would raise the fine for speeding over 20 mph from $250 to $300. He also announced something DDOT previously said at the task force, which is that they are reviewing speed limits and may raise some.

The Wells-Cheh bill, by contrast, would lower fines for 0-10 and 11-20 to $50, as well as fines for other infractions like blocking the box or not fully stopping at a stop sign.

Gray said he will use some of the money to hire 100 new police officers. That’s fine, though if the police officers don’t focus on traffic, then it ultimately is just using camera revenue for things other than road safety.

We need to do more for traffic safety. DC is adding a few cameras which will make a big impact, but there’s a lot of dangerous driving out there. A few cameras with high fines will stem a little bit of it and raise a bunch of money. I want to see us stem a lot more of it, and the only realistic way to do that is to expand the cameras significantly.

A major element of the Wells-Cheh bill is a provision that some camera revenue goes into a fund the Metropolitan Police Department can use to buy more cameras. Regardless of the level of fines, it’s critical to set up a system whereby the stock of cameras can automatically grow over time.

It’s also critical to ensure that the political blowback from speed cameras doesn’t stop the District government from adding more. Now, it’s not clear what exactly is necessary to achieve this. If Gray had 3-4 more years on his mayoralty, there might be little need to change the fines. Gray shows no interest in curtailing the plan whatsoever, regardless of fines, and in fact is resistant to lowering fines.

The DC Council might have disapproved some contracts for new cameras, but it couldn’t. The next year’s budget counts on a lot of revenue from cameras, which means that if councilmembers had wanted to delete the cameras, they would have had to fill a big budget hole.

What about in the future? If Gray doesn’t run for reelection, as most speculate he won’t, then the next mayor might have a different view. Maybe the next mayor will be so hostile to cameras that it won’t matter how high or low the fines are. Or maybe he or she will keep cameras going no matter what.

From a safety point of view, fines don’t need to be high as long as it’s having a deterrent effect. At the press conference, Police Chief Cathy Lanier said she doesn’t believe $50 fines are enough to deter, but council staff could find no studies that showed any conclusive correlation between fine size and driving behavior.

That suggest that high fines don’t really improve safety. On the other hand, it also means that lowering fines probably won’t do anything for safety either—unless lowering fines changes the political dynamic and allows more cameras.

It’s not clear it will. AAA’s John Townsend participated in the task force, and said in the meetings that AAA would support cameras as long as they’re not for revenue. But then, last week AAA still came out with a provcative study of how many dollars certain cameras brought in, and got a raft of sympathetic stories in the press.

From a purely abstract point of view, lowering fines is the right thing to do. Punishments should be high enough to deter lawbreaking, but don’t need to be higher just to punish. A lot of people believe, despite academic evidence to the contrary, that cranking up punishments fights crime or unsafe driving; past a certain point, it doesn’t.

From a political point of view, on the other hand, it’s worth doing this right thing if it achieves a greater goal. Expanding cameras, and making streets safer, should be that goal. If the bill sets aside a fund for MPD to buy more cameras, that could significantly streamline the process.

If lowering fines blunts political blowback, that’s worth a lot. However, if speeders still complain, and AAA’s Townsend will continue to say anything to get attention in the press regardless of lower fines, then lower fines would just give dangerous lawbreakers a windfall for little benefit.