D.C.'s traffic cameras would dole out points as well as fines under new bill If you're pulled over by a D.C. police officer for breaking a traffic law, you can face points on your driver's license. A new bill would allow traffic cameras to do the same.
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D.C.'s traffic cameras would dole out points as well as fines under new bill

There are dozens of speed cameras across D.C., with fines for violations starting at $100 and rising quickly thereafter. The city also uses traffic cameras at red lights and select stop signs. Martin Austermuhle/WAMU hide caption

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Martin Austermuhle/WAMU

The District's many traffic cameras are well-known for slapping drivers with steep fines for everything from speeding to running a red light, but under a new bill introduced in the D.C. Council they'd also be able to issue something else: points.

The bill, authored by Councilmember Christina Henderson (I-At Large), would ramp up the consequences for a number of traffic violations by allowing the city to use its cameras to do what police officers can already do when they pull someone over, which is assess points on their driver's license.

Currently, a driver who gets between 10 and 11 points can have their driving privileges suspended for up to 90 days, while 12 points or above will get a license revoked. While traffic cameras can catch drivers committing many of the same infractions, they only have the ability to assess fines.

"If you are going 25 over the speed limit and you are caught by MPD, you get a fine and points. If you are going 25 over the speed limit and you are caught by an [Automated Traffic Enforcement] camera, should we not also equally assess your record to say that in that moment you were driving recklessly?" asks Henderson.

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The first-term At-Large lawmaker says she started batting around ideas over the summer for how to improve D.C.'s many traffic cameras, which are touted as one of the city's best tools to tamp down on dangerous driving that can put other pedestrians, cyclists, and other road users at risk. Despite their use, traffic deaths in D.C. hit a 14-year high in 2021.

And in the many years that traffic cameras have been in use, they have been a magnet for criticism from both sides. Critics have said they dole out excessive fines that hit low-income drivers the hardest, while proponents say their effectiveness has been severely limited by the reality that no enforcement mechanism exists to force out-of-state drivers — who commit a majority of traffic violations in the city — to pay the fines.

Past attempts to reform the traffic camera system have been hampered by a harsh reality: the fines they produce bring in significant amounts of revenue, meaning that any push to lower fines would require lawmakers to account for potentially tens of millions of dollars that would stop flowing into city coffers. According to data from the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles, from Sept. 2020 to Oct. 2021, the city's traffic cameras issued 1,477,167 tickets worth $187 million in fines; at least $61 million worth of which remained unpaid by the end of that period.

A 2017 bill authored by Councilmember Trayon White (D-Ward 8) to do away with the current practice of doubling the amount of a fine if it's not paid within 30 days, for example, was passed into law but was never funded; the city's chief financial officer estimated that it would cost $124 million over four years in lost revenue, and lawmakers have not yet identified money to replace that. It has since been repealed.

Earlier this year, the council passed a bill that would repeal the current practice of not allowing drivers with a certain amount of unpaid fines to renew their licenses. Proponents said the practice disproportionately impacted low-income residents — who are predominantly Black — but critics like Henderson worried that it would remove one of the city's few tools to force people to pay their fines.

"Now we're changing the paradigm that if your license is suspended under this mechanism, it is not about your inability to pay. It is literally because you're driving record as such that you need to take a time out from our streets," she says about her bill, which is being co-sponsored by Councilmembers Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1) and Elissa Silverman (I-At Large).

Under the provisions of the bill, anyone caught by a traffic camera would be assessed one point on their license, and an additional point if the violation occurred in a school zone. (MPD officers who pull drivers over can issue tickets that have more points.) Points would only start accruing after a second violation, and the director of the Department of Transportation, which manages the city's traffic cameras, would be allowed to waive points if a driver completes a traffic safety course. The bill would presume that the operator of the car is also the owner, but an owner could appeal a ticket and the points if they were not operating it at the time of the infraction.

The bill would also ramp up the city's ability to get out-of-state drivers to pay fines by sending twice-yearly reports to the insurance companies that hold policies for drivers that have five or more outstanding tickets on their records. It would also allow D.C. to boot or tow any car with more than two outstanding tickets on it, as would any car with a "counterfeit, stolen, or otherwise fraudulent temporary identification tags."

Henderson says that she knows any debate over traffic cameras will have to deal with equity issues, notably the fact that fines disproportionately impact low-income residents because it may be harder to pay them — and then those fines can double. But she adds that racial equity conversations also have to focus on who is more likely to be a victim of a traffic fatality. Almost half of the traffic deaths last year happened in wards 7 and 8, which are predominantly Black and low-income.

"It is very salient in the moment when we are having to have a vigil or put up a ghost bike or talk about a young person who has been hit by a vehicle outside of their school. But then once that moment passes, nobody wants to actually have a discussion about what happens moving forward," she says. "I am very clear-eyed in recognizing that this is a controversial conversation that we are going to have. I am also very clear in knowing that when we talk about traffic violence, the vast majority of incidents are occurring in communities of color. And so we have to talk about this in a way that deals with that tension."

It remains unclear whether Henderson's bill could move through the legislative process before the end of the year, when the council's two-year legislative cycle ends and any bill not passed into law has to be re-introduced next year. But Henderson hopes to at least get a public hearing on the measure.

This story originally appeared on DCist.com

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