D.C.'s traffic cameras go beyond just red lights

Washington, DC has a new network of traffic cameras. Better follow the signs!

Drivers in Washington, D.C., today, beware. The city has a new digital dragnet and drivers who block the box, fail to yield to pedestrians, or take overweight trucks onto residential streets could be ticketed at close to 100 new locations throughout the city.

Automated traffic enforcement is so much more than just one camera at a stoplight.  “These are contractors, hired by the cities, to set up the cameras, maintain them and also submit all that data to the police departments,” says Mark Takahashi, automotive editor with Edmunds.com.

And it’s the cost of installing these systems, which can use radar, video cameras and even lasers to track violators, as well as wrangling with the contractors who maintain them, that can be a deterrent. Some cities, Takahashi says, wanted to make intersections safer by extending the duration of the yellow light before it turns red. But he says they were prevented by their contracts with the maintenance firms. “They weren’t allowed to extend that yellow light period,” he says, “because it would impinge on their earnings.”

Takahashi say some cities, like LA, have decided the systems are just too pricey to continue.  

Washington, where new cameras have been flagging drivers with warnings for about a month, will begin issuing tickets for everything from failing to yield to pedestrians to driving oversized vehicles in restricted areas. City officials declined to speak Friday about the program.

Traffic cameras, says Russ Rader with the Insurance Institute for Highway safety, should be about safety, not about revenue. And he says, urban planners should also keep in mind the financial realities the cameras bring. One red light camera, at one intersection, says can run $100,000. So when it comes creating budgets, municipalities should realize the cameras have diminishing returns. “Cities should not depend on camera revenue to fund programs indefinitely. Because as the cameras work, to change driver behavior, the revenue falls,” he says.

But cities are still trying to collect where they can.

John Townsend, public affairs manager for AAA's mid-Atlantic region, says there needs to be greater transparency about the kind of tickets imposed. The cameras are designed, he says, to stop the most serious violations. “This is why you have such a high buy-in rate for these programs,” he notes, but that’s not why most people get tickets. He says in many systems, drivers are flagged for illegal turns or going past an intersection's stop line.

Less than five percent of all crashes in the country occur when people make turns on red, notes Townsend. “If that’s what you’re going to use your device for then tell people,” he says.

Rader says research shows the cameras are have been proven effective at getting drivers to stop running red lights. But Takahashi says that research isn’t solid. While in some cases he agrees that fatalities have dropped, he says the cause isn’t clear. He says, aside from arousing ire in drivers around the country, who voice their annoyance on Twitter, Meetup and Facebook, without a police officer to physically hand out tickets, the cameras simply aren’t strong deterrents. Drivers, he notes, may run a red light, but not receive a ticket in the mail for weeks. Nothing to compare, he says, with that “sinking feeling in your gut when you see a police officer on the other side of the intersection.”

About the author

Sally Herships is a regular contributor to Marketplace.

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