District of Columbia officials should just drop the pretense and start calling their ubiquitous traffic cameras "money cams," because that's what they really are. In just-ended fiscal year 2012, the District took in a record-breaking $84.9 million in camera-generated fines. That's a roughly $30 million increase over their record-breaking haul of about $55 million in fiscal 2011, and a 500 percent increase over the past four years.
Mayor Vincent Gray still insists that "the public safety aspect for me is first and foremost," as he told Examiner reporter Alan Blinder last week. But if the cameras were really fulfilling their intended function, and forcing motorists to be more careful driving on the city's busy streets, traffic cam revenue would be going down, not up. On the surface, it appears the opposite is happening, as more drivers are caught speeding and running red lights than ever before.
It's doubtful that people are really driving more recklessly, with hundreds of cameras in place to record such transgressions. And AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman John Townsend notes that there is "no proof whatsoever that those extreme fines change behavior at all." A more likely interpretation is that traffic camera opponents were right all along, and that the devices' main function is to raise revenue, not improve public safety.
Which is why D.C. Council members Tommy Wells, of Ward 6, Mary Cheh, of Ward 3, and Marion Barry, of Ward 8, introduced the Safety-Based Traffic Enforcement Act of 2012 to lower the fines, which currently run as high as $250, to $50 for certain moving violations, such as driving up to 20 mph over the posted speed limit, blocking an intersection, and failing to stop at a red light before turning right.
Wells calls the automated fines "a kind of a backwards tax" and says some of his colleagues view the devices as money cams. A growing number of D.C. residents and suburban commuters agree, and are planning to express their displeasure at getting socked with hundreds of dollars' worth of fines at a public hearing Nov. 5.
However, Mayor Vincent Gray is already planning to expand the program to raise an additional $25 million to help balance his 2013 budget, and will vigorously fight any council attempt to limit the fines. The lesson here is that once the government becomes dependent on a lucrative revenue stream, it becomes very difficult to claw that money back.