“DC doesn’t deserve self-rule until it… lets Dana Milbank break traffic laws.” That’s the message from the Washington Post‘s columnist today.

The idea that DC might be entitled to govern its own affairs, but only if it shapes up in some way that happens to appeal to the writer, is a sadly common refrain from political commentators. Though governors of many states have been actually convicted of corruption—most recently, former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell for allegedly selling his influence to a dietary supplement maker in exchange for personal gifts—many say the District doesn’t deserve autonomy because there’s a campaign finance investigation into our mayor. (Or because Ward 8 votes for Marion Barry.)

Today’s Milbank column is a new low in this trope, even compared to the one he wrote last year where he objected to budget autonomy because the city was making all taxis switch to a uniform red paint job.

Apparently, Dana Milbank has been breaking a number of traffic laws, such as not fully stopping at a stop sign, or not fully stopping before turning right on red. He admits he’s broken these rules, but rather than suggesting they be changed, he calls efforts to enforce them a “startling abuse of power,” an “appalling overreach,” and “like a banana republic.”

The column is also a new low in the tired “war on cars” meme, which keeps popping up for one reason: Representatives of AAA Mid-Atlantic, the region’s local branch of the national auto club, repeat it every chance they get. And with good reason: it gets quoted. It revs people who drive aggressively, but think they’re being safe, into a frenzy of blaming the government for daring to suggest that their behavior might be dangerous.

Fix problems, don’t attack all enforcement

That’s not to say DC’s camera system is perfect. A recent report from the District’s Office of Inspector General exposed some real problems with the program. For example, sometimes officials couldn’t tell which of multiple cars was speeding, and sometimes improperly decided which one would get a ticket. This shouldn’t happen. Authorities need to be very confident they have the right car, and if they aren’t, they shouldn’t give a ticket. (According to police, these problems have already been fixed or are in the process of being fixed.)

However, Milbank isn’t saying he’s been the victim of any of these errors. He’s not saying the law should be changed, but rather, not enforced. (He does allege some other instances where a ticket appeal was denied improperly—and if true, that’s also wrong.)

The Post editorial board had a much more level-headed response to the IG report, writing, “The widespread and consistent enforcement of traffic laws made possible by photo enforcement has caused drivers to slow down in the District and obey the rules. While it is important to fine-tune the system to make it as fair and accurate as possible, suggestions to limit or curtail the program should be rejected.”

Yes, safety is important

I agree with Milbank, AAA, and others that the camera program can target safety even better than it does. The strongest argument for enforcement is where pedestrians or cyclists are at risk. These vulnerable road users have little recourse against aggressive driving. There are many places in the District where people speed, turn right on red without looking, or just plain fail to yield around significant numbers of pedestrians. Residents of those neighborhoods can often tell you just where the bad spots are.

There should be lower fines, but more cameras, so that people know they’re going to get caught doing something illegal, but each incident can be more minor. Criminology research has shown that more frequent enforcement with lower severity changes people’s behavior more than random, occasional, high-severity punishment.

AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman Lon Anderson alleges that not fully stopping at a stop sign or before turning right on red isn’t a real safety issue. WTOP’s Ari Ashe tried to research this, and found that crashes involving right turns on red aren’t that frequent. However, the crashes that do occur tend to cause injuries.

AAA used to agree. During meetings of 2012 task force on cameras which DC Councilmembers Mary Cheh and Tommy Wells convened, AAA’s John Townsend said the organization fully supported stop sign and red light cameras. “Complete cessation of movement” is the legal standard, and Townsend said they agreed with that. Now, that seems to have changed, and maybe slowing down mostly, but not entirely, is OK.

How do you stop unsafe right turns on red?

The problem is that it’s hard to draw a line other than “actually stopping” that protects pedestrians. For speeding, our society has generally tolerated driving up to 10 mph over the limit, and now drivers come to expect that they have a 10 mph buffer. But the consequence is that even on residential streets with 30 mph speed limits, people feel justified driving 40. A pedestrian will survive a crash at 30 mph 70 percent of the time; at 40 mph, it’s only 20 percent.

So should it be OK to turn right without stopping as long as you’re going under 2 mph? 5? 10? When will we get to the point when whipping around the corner at moderate speed is considered acceptable (many already think it is), and if you hit a pedestrian, “I didn’t see him” is enough to get off with no consequence?

Behaviors that drivers intuitively think are safe enough aren’t necessarily. The challenge of a camera program is to convince a large group of people that something they’ve been doing for a long time is actually kind of dangerous. There’s always going to be a gray zone of what is and isn’t dangerous, but people are always going to want to push that envelope to excuse more behavior.

They’ll insist that the program is about money, not safety, as many do. AAA will tell them it’s not their fault. They’ll craft biting turns of phrase to criticize the government, as Milbank did, or suggest DC doesn’t deserve statehood because of it, or even argue that the District is “like the Soviet East” because locally-elected representatives passed laws and want more freedom from an overbearing central government—wait, what?

What’s that about statehood?

But Milbank’s statehood point is more apt than he likely realized. Even when Democrats held the White House, House of Representatives, and a supermajority in the Senate in 2009, they didn’t pass statehood for DC, or even budget autonomy. Republicans talk about the value of local control, then legislate their values for District residents who have no say in the matter.

For some in the political classes, democracy is a great idea in theory, but when it comes to giving up one’s own control, ideology often loses out. Milbank is pointing out a real reason DC will have a hard time winning more autonomy. It’s not because the government is behaving badly. Rather, it’s that for the people who hobnob with members of Congress, it’s more convenient to have their friends calling the shots for the District—so they don’t have to do something as pedestrian as drive carefully enough to protect pedestrians on the road.

Cross-posted at the Washington City Paper.

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.