Wednesday, March 28, 2012

DC's Mayor Wants Loads More Traffic Cameras - and That's a Great Thing

I want more of these in DC! SO MANY MORE!
GIVE THEM TO ME NOW! Photo Source.

Although I often don't have many kind things to say about Vincent Gray, DC's mayor, there's one thing that he and I agree on - DC would be a much better place if it had many, many more speed cameras, red light cameras, and other automated traffic enforcement. As a DC resident, I wholeheartedly agree.

Gray's proposals come as a part of a plan to balance DC's budget, as reported by WAMU:
Forget taxes and fees; if District Mayor Vincent Gray has his way, D.C.'s budget will balanced in part by speeding cars and late-night alcohol. 
Gray is defended his budget for next year, which aims to close a $172 million shortfall through a combination of cuts and increased revenues, to the D.C. Council yesterday. His  proposed spending plan calls for some controversial proposals, including counting on millions in revenue from new traffic cameras.
The new devices include speed cameras, red light cameras, and even laser cameras that can catch speeding drivers in tunnels. But there's already been push-back on the cameras from AAA Mid-Atlantic and some of the council members, including Muriel Bowser.
"I think we've just gone overboard with this and when our residents see a $30 million expectation of fines, they become increasingly upset too," Bowser told Gray during the hearing.  
But the mayor didn't back down, telling the Council he would like to see traffic cameras eventually cover every part of the city. The bottom line, he said, is that speed cameras aren't for raising revenue, they're for stopping reckless drivers.
"This is a focus on how we protect the people and how we help people feel safe doing the things we say are a part of our sustainability plan," Gray said. "And that is … get people using other than automobiles, and people need to safe doing that."
Although I've always been a big proponent of walking and public transit as the most sensible, cheapest, healthiest, and most environmentally friendly means of personal transportation in cities, living in downtown DC has made me into a near-vigilante when it comes to asserting and defending my rights as a pedestrian - because people in the DC metro area suck at driving. And that's not just me saying that - multiple insurance companies have concluded that DC metro drivers are the worst drivers in the United States.

Everyone in the DC metro area has their opinion as to which state (or in DC's case, non-state) has the worst drivers in the region. Without much surprise, people generally think that people from their same state are the best drivers in the region - and I'm no exception. I'm speaking primarily as a pedestrian, however, as I practically never drive in DC - and I agree with the comments at DCist:
  1. Maryland drivers are the worst - they blast down my residential road at 45+ miles per hour, are totally oblivious to pedestrians, and generally have no regard for anyone on the road but themselves. Most of the times my wife or I have near-misses with cars (when we're trying to cross a road legally in a crosswalk), the offending car is from Maryland.
  2. Virginia drivers are better than Maryland drivers, but not by much. They aren't such extreme speed freaks as Maryland drivers, and they seem to be slightly more aware of pedestrians, but they're still pretty bad.
  3. DC drivers certainly have their flaws, but at least they are somewhat prone to looking for pedestrians trying to legally cross the street before blasting through an intersection, are less likely to treat residential streets as highway bypasses, etc.
As someone who spends a lot of his travel time in DC on foot, I am well aware of how dangerous DC can be for pedestrians - and I'm not sure what can be done about it, other than blanketing the city in traffic cameras that send out automated tickets to all offenders. Even regular police patrols don't seem to do the trick - I regularly see people pulled over for speeding on my residential street, but people continue to zoom down my 25 mph road like it's an extension of 395-N.

There have been a couple of recent events, however, that prompted me to write this blog post, in conjunction with Gray's budget announcement:
  • Last week, a driver (from Maryland) blatantly ran a red light near my apartment, almost hitting my wife, who had had a walk signal for a couple seconds already when the driver blew through the intersection at 40+ mph.
  • This past weekend, my wife and I were crossing the street in a crosswalk (this particular crosswalk has no light). Many of you DC metro drivers are not aware, it seems, that you must stop for pedestrians in a crosswalk if they are in the crosswalk, even if there's no light. My wife and I were halfway through the crosswalk when a driver (from Virginia) gunned his engine to make it through the intersection before we got to his side of the road. I gave the driver a near-universal sign of displeasure at his actions. We kept walking, but the driver stopped his car in the middle of the road, jumped out, and started yelling at us. We kept walking and tried to explain (via yelling, a rather inefficient communication method) that he is required by law to stop in crosswalks for pedestrians, even if there's no light at the crosswalk.
Seriously, people - where do you all learn to drive, that they don't teach you that you have to stop for pedestrians in crosswalks, always? I sympathize with you, DC metro drivers - driving in DC literally kills you, slowly, and you waste epic amounts of time and money in and on your car. The solution to those problems, however, is not to try to kill me as I (legally) cross the street - the solution is to figure out how to change your life so you can spend less time in your car.

Some people have cynically argued that the traffic cameras are only about money. Aside from being laughably untrue - so what if it is about money? As a DC resident, I have no problem with soaking Maryland and Virginia drivers through traffic cameras. They endanger our pedestrians and drive on our streets at no cost - well, I, for one, am happy to have their fines contribute to the upkeep of the DC roads they so often drive on.

So, that's what it boils down to - as Greater Greater Washington says: "speed kills, and traffic cameras save lives." As a DC resident, I hope Mayor Gray gets his way and that every street (and therefore pedestrian) in DC is protected by a traffic camera.

Not incidentally, you can read much more on how to improve pedestrian safety in the DC metro area over at Greater Greater Washington.


  1. Hell yeah! If there's constant enforcement, they can even lower the fines. People aren't deterred by heavy punishment if there's little chance of getting caught. They are deterred by the certainty of getting caught, even if the punishment isn't severe. Cameras everywhere will make it certain speeders will get caught.

    A word of caution though: Here in Arlington (TX) they have red light cameras, but they outsourced the data collection to an Arizona company, who actually prints out and sends you the citation. No problem, right? Well, due to IT security, the Arlington PD is unable to access these citations, so they can't actually go after you if you refuse to pay.

    Needless to say, a lot of people don't bother: compliance was under 70% when an article about it came out, and it's dropped since.


  2. there must be a bright yellow pedestrian sign at a crosswalk, other than traffic light, before cars have to stop for pedestrians. as far as cameras go, remember that they are NOT 100% full proof, they are machines and computers and are only as good as they are prepped. I would say on averagee they are only 90% good, so 10% get hosed and the DC streets never get fixed.

  3. Andrew: Thanks for your enthusiasm, and your cautionary tale from TX. That's a serious flaw in the system design - something that should be easily avoidable with a little forethought ...

    Anonymous: You're wrong - thanks for providing an example of how no one around here knows the actual traffic laws.

    From the DC's driver's manual: "Pedestrians Right-of-Way: All pedestrians have the right-of-way at street crossings in towns and cities, except where traffic officers or traffic control devices control traffic. Pedestrians in a crosswalk, whether marked or unmarked, have the right-of-way except when they enter the crosswalk on a red light or against the direction of a traffic officer." (See page 37.)

    That means that, unless there is a pedestrian crossing light or a police officer, pedestrians ALWAYS have the right-of-way at EVERY SINGLE INTERSECTION - regardless of whether the crosswalk is marked or unmarked! So, Anonymous, I suspect you're one of those people who endanger pedestrians by not following the law.

    -The Angry Bureaucrat

  4. Anonymous: I'll also point out that, on the following page of the DC driving manual, it says that drivers must yield to pedestrians even when pedestrians are crossing the road outside of the crosswalk. So, yes, drivers are required by law to stop for pedestrians pretty much always and everywhere - and obviously, most don't.

  5. oh, so DC has different crossing laws than the states do, maybe the mayor should use some of the camera money to have billboards all over explaining that DC has different laws. Also tell your bikers that they need to obey the same laws as vehicles...

  6. Just make sure that the selected contractor for the systems cuts the city a fair deal on the revenue. The contractor in Charlotte worked the system for way too much of the revenue. The red light cameras are no longer at the intersections.

  7. I doubt that there's a statistically-significant difference in quality between VA, MD, and DC drivers in DC. Most of those people don't come from here. That "in DC" part is important -- out in rural Virginia, I'm the worst driver on the road. My father-in-law, born and raised in Nottoway County, refuses to cross the Beltway because the people inside it "drive like maniacs."

  8. Anonymous #2: Good point - I recall similar complaints with London's automated traffic cordon system.

    Joe: Indeed - compared with non-big city folk, people inside the Beltway drive like crazy people. My wife is barely allowed to drive when we visit our hometown in rural Tennessee, because she is inclined to violate traffic laws left and right, cut people off, etc. in ways that you just can't do down there without being cited/arrested/shot.

    -The Angry Bureaucrat