Fairness And D.C.’s Traffic Fines

Last week, the Washington City Paper ran a story about D.C.’s speeding cameras that implied and argued that D.C. is using them to generate reveunue (it accounts for about 1.3% of D.C.’s gross revenues). There are some problems with D.C.’s approach. The fines are too high, especially for lower-income people, and the fines shouldn’t increase if payment is late–too many people have a hard time paying the original fine, never mind a doubling. Likewise, licenses shouldn’t be suspended simply because someone can’t afford to pay the fines (losing the ability to drive will only make paying off the fine that much harder).

The larger issue is that the cameras–many of which are mobile–shouldn’t be used as ‘ambush’ cameras. The goal isn’t to make people wonder if they’re driving past a camera everywhere in D.C.: people become desensitized to that level of hypervigilance and resume driving dangerously. The goal should be to use these cameras when changing traffic flows, either through traffic light regulation or fixing roads (e.g., traffic bulb outs), isn’t practical. That means drivers should be made aware that, if they break the law right here (or over there), they will be fined. It’s a second-best option compared to structural changes, but in many places, and those places are often disproportionately non-white, as these areas have wider roads that are used for ‘thru traffic’, this is the only solution (and racial disparities in less safe roads and more vehicle-related air pollution are also problems too).

That said, the argument that the time between the infraction and the penalty (i.e., the fine) is too long is silly. The ticket tells you where it happened, and, given how bent out of shape drivers seem to be by the fines, it’s clear they are noticed. This is not the equivalent of a criminal receiving multiple slaps on the wrist, until he escalates to murder and then is jailed. People notice the fine, though a shorter delay would mean they would start obeying the traffic laws sooner.

Speaking of traffic laws, let’s review D.C.’s. Unless a different speed is posted, the default speed limit is 25 mph. Here are some of the fines for various infractions:

If you were ticketed for $150, either you blew through a red light or you were doing at least 41 mph. At that speed, a pedestrian or a cyclist dies in a collision. While the ideal solution is to massively improve public transit for all parts of the city, until that happens, dangerous driving does need to be penalized. And I have no sympathy for someone who, in the course of several years, racked up $3,400 in tickets. Look at the list of fines and think about how bad you have to be at driving (or even basic impulse control) to get that many fines.

Again, the best solution would be to improve mass transit, especially in lower-income areas (which would have multiple benefits). In lieu of that, the presence of cameras should be made clear so people change their driving behavior, the fines shouldn’t increase with late payment, and licenses shouldn’t be suspended for payment issues*.

*Suspensions for bad driving, absolutely.

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