Credit: Darrow Montgomery and Stephanie Rudig

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The American rite of passage known as a traffic ticket can ruin a good day and tank a bad one. 

But in D.C., where tickets top off at $300, double if unpaid after 30 days, and are issued in perverse abundance via automated cameras, traffic tickets are ruining a lot more than a day for many of their recipients—especially those who struggle economically. Meanwhile traffic fatalities are on a slight but steady rise. 

The District’s ticket habit is of concern to all. In recent years, revenue from automated enforcement has become a virtual cash cow for D.C., with income from red light and speeding camera tickets alone jumping from just over $69 million in 2015 to over $123 million in 2016.

A bill currently under mayoral review addresses some of the harshest side effects of this revenue-cum-enforcement strategy. The Traffic and Parking Ticket Penalty Amendment Act of 2017, as it stands, would discontinue the suspension of drivers licenses for residents who have unpaid tickets, eliminating a pathway from fines to criminal charges if residents with suspended licenses get caught driving. But it would not reduce the price of tickets. 

According to AAA Mid-Atlantic, District red light camera tickets are 200 percent higher than they are in Virginia and 100 percent higher than they are in Maryland. Speed camera tickets range from $50 to $300 in D.C., while such tickets are $40 in Maryland and do not exist in Virginia. The District’s highest speed camera ticket of $300 is 650 percent higher than a speed camera ticket in a work zone or school zone in Maryland. 

While parking enforcement tickets have been decreasing as more drivers use smartphone and ride-hailing apps to pay for parking or get around town, photo citations have more than made up for the loss. The issuance of red light, speeding, and stop sign tickets jumped 70 percent in fiscal year 2016. 

“There is ample evidence that automated enforcement reduces fatalities,” says Yesim Sayin Taylor, executive director of the D.C. Policy Center, which has issued reports on the subject of automated fines, “but we cannot rule out that the city is hooked on the revenue.”

Revenue collected through parking and photo citation enforcement currently goes to the city’s General Fund, which funds government operations, debt financing, and helps pay for water and sewer services. In 2018, the General Fund sits at about $9.1 billion. 

The problem, says Sayin Taylor, who used to work in the Office of the Chief Financial Officer, is that the city is forever looking to increase the General Fund’s baseline—always up, and never down—and so the idea of lowering ticket prices becomes politically untenable, as no one department or program is willing to stomach a cut. 

“In 2017, the total revenue was $190 million supporting the General Fund,” she says. “If the District adopted a fee structure that is less onerous on low income families—let’s say cutting the fines by half—then the city would have to find a way to make up $80 million of revenue. In other words, we are addicted to the revenue and it is so large now that it is hard to make up for it.”

“The city unfortunately uses various fines as a revenue source,” says David Brunori, professor of public policy and public administration at George Washington University. “There is a place for fines—to deter bad behavior. But there is something untoward to use them for General Fund revenue. The problem is that the city raises so much money fining people that it becomes a part of the budget. The city almost needs people to speed because they are relying on the money.”

Credit: Darrow Montgomery and Stephanie Rudig

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In August 1999, the city activated its first red-light intersection safety camera at the corner of New York Avenue NW and 4th Street NW. In that year, there were 47 traffic fatalities. Throughout the early aughts, the District followed a national trend of implementing and expanding its program of traffic camera enforcement. Residents were voicing concern over the issue of aggressive driving, and bit by bit traffic deaths decreased, hitting a low of 19 in 2012. 

In 2016, D.C. fine-tuned its photo citation program and the issuance of tickets skyrocketed, jumping from 657,444 in 2015 to 1,103,769 the next year. In 2017, the city hired a vendor called American Traffic Solutions to run its camera enforcement program for a fixed price contract of $3,528,261.63 per year. Today, there are approximately 150 cameras up and running throughout the city, generating unparalleled levels of revenue. 

For the District’s well-to-do, this newfound reality has become a normal, if annoying, extra charge. But as the region’s cost of living soars, and as rent and housing prices reach into the stratosphere, the city’s policy of slamming drivers with steep fines and then doubling them upon non-payment is wreaking havoc on the lives of residents and commuters who struggle to get by. 

According to a 2017 DC Fiscal Policy Institute report, households in the top 20 percent of income have 29 times more income than those in the bottom 20 percent, and the low-income group is largely African-American. While proponents of machine-based ticketing argue that it reduces the potential for racial discrimination, a D.C. Policy Center analysis titled “Predominantly black neighborhoods in D.C. bear the brunt of automated traffic enforcement” shows the opposite.

“My analysis of moving violations citations and crash data suggests that the racial geography of D.C. does play into in the enforcement of traffic violations,” wrote the study’s author, William Farrell. “Census tracts with higher proportions of black residents are associated with a higher incidence of traffic fines, despite not experiencing a greater number of crashes.”

Earlier this year, Sheika Reid ran for the Ward 1 Council seat on a platform that elevated automated traffic and parking tickets alongside issues like affordable housing and small business development. Like many who work on the issue, the 27-year-old architectural drafter and D.C. native had been personally impacted by the high cost of tickets, having her car towed and later confiscated for failure to pay in January 2017. 

“I was using my car for job hunting, so I wasn’t able to pay,” she says. “With my community organizing background, I thought, ‘If this is a cold for me, it’s a like the flu for people who are more economically vulnerable.’”

But it’s not just the economically vulnerable or people of color who are impacted, Reid says. “I’m a young black woman, and this was across Ward 1,” she says. “Everyone was saying they can’t make sense of speeding and parking tickets and their expenses, and there was this moment, this demand for a community voice that understands that the cost of living is so expensive and that [tickets] really do hurt.”

Chioma Iwuoha, a fellow community organizer and friend of Reid’s, helped with the effort to raise awareness. After gutting her savings more than once to pay for tickets, Iwuoha decided to launch a campaign. She created a survey and sent it out to friends and family and on Facebook. Respondents to Iwuoha’s survey painted a picture of high fines as a straw that can break the camel’s back in an already extremely expensive city.

“It’s a great barrier,” wrote one respondent. “I find that money that goes to paying overpriced tickets could be better spent on things I actually need, like paying rent and groceries. It’s keeping me from being able to change my registration to DC, which in turn causes me to get more tickets.”

Multiple respondents complained of owing thousands of dollars for tickets that had doubled. 

Jennifer Bryant, a 32-year-old communications worker who lives in Benning Ridge, wrote that she owed D.C. a whopping $1000 in tickets in 2016. Reached for an interview, she explained, “2016 was a bad year for me, and tickets made it ten times worse.”

In the span of about seven months, Bryant got hit with multiple speeding and parking tickets. Because she was unemployed she couldn’t pay, and all of the tickets doubled. “I was using my car to drive Uber. I needed my car to go to job interviews, and I was so scared to drive around because I thought they were going to boot my car or tow it.”

Another respondent, Allison Basile, who helps run a worker-owned labor cooperative called Tight Shift that consists of people returning from prison, says she incurred over $1,600 in D.C. tickets in 2016, roughly equivalent to 11% of her income that year. In 2017, after almost a decade of living in the District, Basile decided to move to Maryland. “It was the financial burden,” she explains, “and the tickets were a huge part of that financial burden.”

“Once I had to get a loan to pay for my car tickets,” wrote a D.C. resident named Tiye. “It’s by the grace of God that I was able to get a loan from a family member because otherwise I would’ve been without a car and unable to get to my job at the time. Tickets in DC are WAY too expensive. They shouldn’t be doubled if you’re late, because if I didn’t have money to pay $100 I definitely won’t have $200.”

Credit: Darrow Montgomery and Stephanie Rudig

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This kind of economic suffering appears to serve no one and nothing so much as it does D.C.’s coffers. 

Traffic deaths and the issuance of automated tickets are both on the rise. While city data on red light, speeding, and stop light related crashes are available until 2015, MPD did not produce data on crashes in 2016, 2017, or 2018 in response to City Paper’s several requests. 

Recent studies in cities like Chicago and New Orleans show that traffic cameras can work to reduce crashes and traffic related deaths. A 2002 study of D.C.’s early speed camera system found that speeding was reduced by 14 percent at speed camera sites, and the incidence of vehicles going 10 miles per hour over the speed limit decreased by 82 percent. 

But criminologists and social scientists that City Paper interviewed argue that the practice of sending high priced fines through the mail is not an effective way to achieve city-wide safety.

“When you’re trying to change behavior, it’s intuitive to focus on making the punishment more severe,” says Adam Fine, assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at Arizona State University and co-founder of ComplianceNet, a scholar network that publishes research and hosts conferences relating to the science of compliance. “However, the science tells us that this is one of the least effective ways to change misbehavior.”

“The problem here is that these tickets come in the mail,” he says. “If I receive a ticket in the mail, I’m probably not going to speed at that intersection again or go through that specific red light. But I’m just one person. No one else knows that I got caught or punished. If improving public safety is really the goal, your money would be better spent on increasing public awareness.” More conspicuous red light and speeding camera signs, or signs announcing the presence of cameras, are the kinds of interventions that help raise awareness to drivers. 

To really change behavior, the sting of enforcement needs to be “swift and certain,” says Gregory Ridgeway, a criminology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and former acting director of the National Institute of Justice. “If every time I ran a red light $5 was immediately deducted from my bank account, and I was immediately informed of that fine,” he says, “then I think that would have a very strong deterrent effect.”

Psychologically speaking, something gets lost in the time that it takes to receive a ticket in the mail, these experts say. The “sting” of enforcement comes after the fact, away from the scene of the crime or infraction and in a more or less random way, as not every red light has a red light camera, and not every street has a speeding camera. This kind of approach could have a “specific” effect, at specific intersections or on specific streets, the experts say, but it would not have a “general” or city-wide effect, and the data seem to bear that out.  

Advocates for lower ticket prices argue that if automated enforcement worked to get people to stop speeding and running red lights, the issuance of photo citation tickets would be going down. But that is not the case. Photo citations keep going up and up. 

According to city data, D.C. issued 1,103,769 photo citations in 2016; 1,229,239 in 2017, and 350,900 as of January 31, 2018. “We are on pace to break the record,” says John Townsend of AAA Mid-Atlantic. 

At the same time, and despite the surge in tickets, traffic fatalities have also been on the rise: 26 deaths in 2015, 28 in 2016, and 30 in 2017. So far this year, there have been 23 traffic fatalities, on par with where we were this time last year. (The last publicly available traffic safety report shows that the number of crashes fluctuated between 2013, 2014, and 2015. The city has not produced publicly available data for 2016 or later.) 

The criminologists say another important issue to consider is that of fairness. “If the procedures of making new laws and of enforcing them are fair, people will have a higher likeliness to obey these rules voluntarily,” says Benjamin van Rooij, global professor of law at University of California, Irvine. “Unfair enforcement can thus also come to undermine its own effectiveness.” 

“What does feel unfair is to be suddenly hit with a $150 fine for a single incident,” says Ridgeway of University of Pennsylvania. “That could very well be the difference between making rent and not making rent one month. If the aim is really deterrence, then theory suggests that swift, certain, and mild fines are the best approach.”

Representatives for pedestrian and bicyclist groups fault the city for not doing enough to create safer roads, but say that there is no excuse for speeding. 

“It’s very easy to not get a speeding ticket, you just have to not speed,” says Colin Browne, communications director for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA). “Speed limits are not there to annoy you and they’re not there to make money, they’re there to keep people safe.”

Nevertheless, he says, “at the public policy level, if you’re relying on enforcement only as your traffic safety measure, you’re doing it wrong and you’ve already failed.”

In July, WABA held a protest outside the mayor’s office demanding that the city do more to eliminate traffic fatalities and live up to its “Vision Zero” plan, which the mayor initiated in 2015 with the aim of eliminating traffic deaths by 2024. 

“The problem is that we’ve built our cities using this arcane set of guidelines that were designed for the interstate highway systems in the ’60s, and surprise surprise, people speed,” Browne says. “The way you back fill that is to add traffic cameras and do speeding enforcement, and that’s not a good solution.” 

Ben Welle, a senior associate urban and transportation planner at the World Resources Institute, and a voting member of the D.C. Pedestrian Advisory Council, echoes the point, calling automated enforcement a “Band-Aid approach.”

“Overall deaths have been going up slightly over the past three years, and that’s despite the city taking on this Vision Zero policy,” he says. “I want to be optimistic—and there are good things happening here and there—but there needs to be a leadership push to make more progress. It’s nice to put out platitudes about Vision Zero and making the city safer for everyone. But there needs to be a paradigm shift, and I just don’t see that happening.” 

Credit: Darrow Montgomery and Stephanie Rudig

***

The Traffic and Parking Ticket Penalty Amendment Act of 2017—in addition to discontinuing the policy of suspending drivers licenses for non-payment of traffic tickets—would provide a community service option in lieu of monetary payment, allowing residents to work down their ticket charges at the rate of the minimum wage. It would also shorten the statute of limitations for unpaid tickets from 16 to 10 years. And if the city can find a way to make up for an estimated $28 million in lost revenue, the bill would extend the time it takes for a ticket to double from 30 to 60 days, offering breathing room for residents who say they can’t get the money together fast enough.

But the bill would do little to take away the city’s ability to make people pay up. And therein lies the problem, say public policy experts and community organizers who praise the bill as a good first step, but complain that the burden of excessively high fines remains. 

There is no way to know how the millions of dollars extracted from drivers translates into cost of living in and around D.C. According to a widely cited MIT living wage calculator, a single District resident working full time needs to earn $17 an hour to cover cost of living, and a single adult with a child needs to earn $30 an hour. In the greater metro area, those numbers are just a hair less. But “sadly the tool does not include such things as fines,” says Professor Amy Glasmeier, who created the calculator. 

The fact that this cost of living is essentially hidden may help explain why more people do not understand it to be a legitimate issue in need of political action.

Iwuoha recalls participating in a panel event involving the Ward 1 Council candidates and bringing up the issue of tickets. She remembers one of the candidates dismissing her concern, saying, “Out of all the doors I knocked on, not one person mentioned parking tickets, so it’s not a priority for me.”

“You know,” Iwuoha says, “if someone came to my door and asked me what are your top two issues, tickets probably wouldn’t come up. But it’s very interconnected with my top issues. I can’t pay my rent, and you’re wiping out my savings to pay for parking tickets, you understand?”

She worked on the issue with Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White, one of the authors of the Traffic and Parking Ticket Penalty Amendment Act. 

Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, who synthesized the act from a series of earlier bills introduced by multiple councilmembers, and who serves as chair of the Committee on Transportation and the Environment, says that the issue of tickets has not “translated into a political issue that gets on the radar” because “it’s crowded out by things like affordable housing, crime, the schools.” 

“Losing your license is a disproportionate hardship for poor people who can’t pay,” she says. “They may lose their job, they may have obligations that tempt them to drive when they don’t have the license, and then things can snowball and it becomes a criminal offense.

“The bill addresses the loss of licenses,” she says, “but it doesn’t take away the other ways we have to make people pay up.”

“Ultimately, nothing in the bill reduces revenue,” says D.C. Policy Center’s Yesim Sayin Taylor, “It just shifts the collections into the future.”

Drivers are currently only allowed one-time access to a payment plan where tickets can be paid in installments. A provision proposed in earlier bills that would allow drivers to access the payment plan more than once is stuck in the mud. “I don’t think it has even had a hearing,” Cheh says of the provision.

And even with the new bill’s community service option, where drivers can pay off tickets at the rate of the minimum wage—currently set at $13.25—it would take over 11 hours of community service to cover the cost of one $150 red light ticket, and over 22 hours for a red light ticket that doubled in price due to late payment. This is assuming that people who lack the money to begin with can find the time.

Finally, the provision extending the payment from 30 to 60 days before doubling in the Traffic and Parking Ticket Penalty Amendment Act will only become law if the Office of the Chief Financial Officer finds a way to “make up for that money.” If not, the provision will die. 

Asked whether the city really needs the estimated $28 million that would be lost if payment were extended from 30 to 60 days, Cheh responds, “I don’t think we need that money, and there is a suspicion that people have in any event that a lot of these things are just money makers.”

She says that the District Department of Transportation has sent her requests for fine increases in the last two or three years, but that she’s sent them back. “I said, unless you can show me some causal relationship between compliance and raising fines, that’s what people will think, and maybe they’re correct,” says Cheh.

Neither the Office of the Mayor nor the District Department of Transportation responded to requests for comment about the city’s automated enforcement pricing policy and failure to reduce tickets and traffic deaths.

For her part, Iwuoha calls for “radical policy change.” 

“Listen,” she says, “I have a 5-year-old child. I don’t want people zooming up and down the street. But the way to achieve that is not to give people a $300 dollar ticket.”

“This city has become predatory.”