Something astounding has happened: A news story about speed camera tickets actually discusses whether or not they deter drivers from speeding, one of the acts which makes roads unsafe.

Mark Segraves dug up some information on whether drivers get more repeat tickets at DC or Maryland cameras:

Segraves got data from DC, Montgomery, and Prince George’s about the percentage of drivers who get multiple tickets, out of all the drivers who get a ticket from the cameras. Ticketed drivers are twice as likely to have multiple tickets in the Maryland counties, and 20 times as likely to have 5 or 10 tickets.

What would cause this discrepancy?

This could be because the fines were much higher in DC in Maryland (they decreased in DC thanks the last year’s camera bill). It could be that the lower fines mean people are less worried about getting caught. Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker thinks that’s true. Anecdotally, I’ve heard from other drivers who say they’re much more afraid of speeding in DC.

It also could be that different groups of drivers get tickets in each jurisdiction. John Townsend of AAA (who can sound entirely reasonable when he tries) thinks that the Maryland cameras are in neighborhoods where the same drivers ply the roads day after day. A possible counter-argument is that drivers who live nearby know where the cameras are, so they shouldn’t get tickets.

Another possibility is that DC gets more tourists, who come in, speed, get a ticket, and then aren’t around to get more. Martin Austermuhle muses that perhaps Maryland drivers are just worse.

One way to better analyze these possibilities would be to break the data down by state. Are DC drivers re-offending at the same rate on DC cameras as Maryland drivers on Maryland cameras? Are Maryland drivers (most of whom do commute) getting more or fewer tickets on DC cameras than the DC drivers do?

Or, to investigate Townsend’s claim, what about just the DC cameras that are in neighborhoods? AAA mostly complains about the ones on freeways, but the most serious safety problems are where major streets cut through neighborhoods. Do people get multiple tickets at higher rates on those DC cameras?

Was it wise to lower fines?

The task force Councilmembers Tommy Wells (ward 6) and Mary Cheh (ward 3) put together couldn’t find convincing evidence one way or the other, so the councilmembers decided to lower the fines because of the political blowback. I argued at the time that AAA is orchestrating a lot of that blowback, so if they want to trade peace for lower fines, they’ll have to follow through.

Townsend hasn’t. Instead, they’ve sent out a stream of press releases attacking the cameras, and given lots of juicy quotes to the press. He’s called cameras “the mother’s milk of additional revenue” for government, even though DC lowered the fines.

Townsend even complained about red light cameras after arguing in the task force for keeping the fines high. He told Ashley Halsey III, “The District collects nearly two-thirds, a stunning 61.6 percent, of the [red-light camera] revenue total for the national capital area.”

Let’s debate the actual safety, not the fake anti-government frame

Maybe cameras won’t work. Mount Pleasant ANC Commissioner Jack McKay doesn’t think they do. MPD does, but doesn’t have good enough data to really prove it. It would be great to have a real debate about what measures will and won’t make streets safer.

That’s not the debate we are having, however. Instead, AAA is using misdirection. They aren’t saying the measures don’t improve safety; they are saying the whole thing is a government conspiracy to squeeze money out of drivers. And the non-revenue elements like bike lanes are a “war on drivers” and an attempt to force people out of cars.

This is a pernicious theme because it plays right into the press’s existing biases to cover stories as government vs. the people. AAA doesn’t want to talk about the people who get hurt from drivers turning right without stopping; they want everyone to blame the evil gummint.

For some reason which escapes me, most reporters seem to eat it up. Halsey led off his story with the extremely biased line, “The lucrative battle to keep drivers in the District from running red lights seems to be achieving more profit than success.” It’s amazing that there had to be a letter to the editor to point out that illegal driving is more than a revenue issue, it’s a safety issue.

Let’s look at that success, seriously. A debate about the cameras based on safety would be welcome. There are plenty of angles for reporters to investigate that relate to the actual safety, or the appropriate level of fines. Mark Segraves has taken one step toward that. Will others follow?

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.