Jonetta Rose Barras: Washington needs more cameras

Local,DC,Jonetta Rose Barras

So, there you were minding your own business, riding the S2 north on 16th Street toward home, looking out the window, checking out the azaleas in bloom, bicyclists whizzing by, mothers pushing prams. This time of year the city makes you swoon like a high school girl.

Your reverie was interrupted at 16th Street and Columbia Road when a van nearly collided with the bus. Within seconds, you and the Metro operator made the same discovery.

"Oh my God, that's the council member. That's Yvette Alexander," the bus driver shouted.

You were astonished the operator knew Alexander. She hadn't exactly been a major political force in the city.

"She's on her cell," continued the driver. "Isn't that against the law?"

Absolutely. But, who in the political class cares about the law these days? Two council members are tax scofflaws. Another resigned and pleaded guilty to tax evasion and stealing $353,000 in public money intended for disadvantaged youth. A fourth is being investigated following allegations he may have acted improperly during Metro and District government contracting deals.

The U.S. attorney is on Mayor Vincent Gray and folks involved in his 2010 campaign like white on rice, to use your grandmother's favorite phrase. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown, also under investigation, may soon experience his own special federal heat.

Alexander's infraction may pale compared with those offenses. Still, it's disturbing when a lawmaker breaks the law.

The council was among the first state legislatures in the country to ban cellphones while driving, except with the use of hands-free devices. Alexander was holding her phone to her ear sans such protection.

Incredulous, the Metro driver opened her window to tell Alexander; "You know you're wrong." You cannot hear her reply but the driver later tells you that Alexander said, "You just make sure the people on the bus are safe."

Safety experts have long lamented the role distractions play in traffic accidents and fatalities. In 2010, a National Safety Council study indicated 1.4 million accidents occur annually because of drivers talking on cellphones; another 200,000 are related to texting.

At 16th and Oak streets NW, Alexander finally pulled her van to the curb to continue her conversation.

After the episode, you called Alexander's D.C. Council office, hoping to find out what she was thinking or, more important, to whom was she talking on her cellphone. She did not return your telephone calls. She also did not respond to your email seeking an explanation for why she believed it was perfectly acceptable for her to break the law.

Ironically, District elected officials have claimed to be concerned about the safety of motorists and pedestrians. Earlier this month, the council approved Gray's 2013 budget, which included expanded use of cameras to track speeders and red-light violators -- for, they said, the sake of safety. What they most want to do, however, is plump government coffers with an estimated $20 million more of motorists' money.

You think cameras should be installed in the vehicles used by the mayor and council members. That might be more effective in curbing crime and keeping citizens safe.

Jonetta Rose Barras' column appears on Monday and Wednesday. She can be reached at

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