Screenshot taken from DC Metropolitan Police video.

DC police have circulated a video of a man smashing several of the District's speed cameras. Some on social media have hailed him as some kind of hero, while others point out that everyone can easily avoid a speeding ticket by simply not speeding. In light of this discussion, it seems like a good time to revive this article from December 22, 2015:

Criminology research says that “swift, certain, and fair” punishments work better than infrequent, highly punitive ones. Traffic cameras offer a way to make enforcement work, if done correctly. Street safety is a big problem, but there’s a lot of reason to doubt that raising a fine from $50 to $500, when people rarely get a ticket for the infraction, will actually do much. There’s also reason to worry that getting police to make more traffic stops could exacerbate existing racial disparities in traffic stops (aka “driving while black”).

 

However, the status quo isn’t the answer either. We need to find ways to eliminate traffic deaths. Is there a way to enforce traffic laws that’s “swift, certain, and fair”? More traffic cameras in more intersections could achieve the “swift, certain, and fair” enforcement.

However, DC would have to change a few things. Right now the cameras are anything but swift, and could also be more certain and fair.

Make tickets come faster (swift). Our household recently got a ticket for speeding in the K Street underpass under Washington Circle. We’ve signed up for automated emails from the DMV about tickets. The speeding happened on October 21; the email arrived on November 5. The paper notice took even longer to arrive in the mail.

This misses a lot of the opportunity to change behavior. There doesn’t seem to be a good reason the tickets couldn’t be issued much faster, like the same or next business day, and emailed and mailed out right afterward. The consequence of this is that people will have long forgotten what they were doing by the time they got the ticket, and plus, people might get many tickets before finding out what they’ve done.

Add more cameras (certain). A few spots around the District aren’t enough to let people know that speeding or other violations will actually lead to a ticket. Now, it’s too easy to just memorize the few places to watch out, like in the underpass, and then speed everywhere else.

Yes, there is a privacy concern with ubiquitous cameras which is important to address, but that’s a concern that’s already relevant with parking enforcers logging every license plate and other automated readers already out there.

Lower fines and more neighborhood cameras (fair). Hitting people with a little fine many times will do more than one big one. This is a debate the District has had many times before, but it’s always been a tradeoff just between lower fines and few cameras, and higher ones and few cameras. More, less punitive enforcement has never been on the table.

The cameras also don’t need to be in places like the K Street underpass where there are no pedestrians and few crashes. Those spots only embolden opponents of any enforcement. The cameras in neighborhood danger zones don’t make as much money, but they’re doing important work to make that neighborhood safer.

Cameras are also more fair because they don’t racially profile. As long as police put the cameras equally in black and white areas where roads are dangerous, there shouldn’t be a disparity between the rate of offenses and the rate of tickets.

Will any of this happen?

While these changes seem like clear ways to improve a messy situation, there hasn’t been the political will to do it.

MPD has added cameras, but slowly. Each new purchase requires long procurement lead times and then the cameras themselves take a long time to deploy. Such things can move faster when the government wants to make them a priority, but that hasn’t yet been the case.

The revenue from cameras has gotten built into the budget, and reducing fines would create a budget gap. If DC is raising some fines, that might be an opportunity to lower others, or automatically lower fines as more cameras come online.

In 2012, Councilmembers Mary Cheh and Tommy Wells convened a task force to discuss these issues and wrote a bill to lower fines and dedicate revenue to safety. But Chairman Phil Mendelson modified the bill in a way that eliminated most of the good reforms and even would make streets more dangerous. Mayor Gray ultimately reversed most lower fines in a subsequent budget as well.

Speeding up the notification process is doable. Some councilmembers could start by asking why this takes so long during next year’s oversight hearings. Legislation could force a speed-up by setting a short maximum lead time, though this would likely reduce revenue in the short run; it would be best to couple it with other reforms that balance out that effect.

 

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.