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Do people think $1,000 fines for driving more than 25 mph over the speed limit are fair?

That question was at the center of the tension between D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh, who represents Ward 3, and District Department of Transportation Director Leif Dormsjo at a public roundtable today on DDOT’s proposed changes to traffic regulations. Cheh, who chairs the Council’s Committee on Transportation, had organized the hearing after residents expressed concerns that some of the proposed penalties—including a $500 one for drivers who block ambulances—were draconian. The proposed regulations are part and parcel of D.C.’s Vision Zero initiative, which aims to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2024. DDOT released an “action plan” for the initiative in December.

“We will be extending the comment period [on the proposed regulations] through the end of January,” Dormsjo testified. He said DDOT has so far received 250 public comments and that many focus on opposition to increasing fines, although some are in support of the fines. “I’m listening and my staff is listening—we’re willing to make changes.”

On the $1,000 fine, the director reiterated that driving 25 or more mph over the speed limit, is “flagrantly dangerous and unacceptable.” If a car driving 50 mph strikes a pedestrian, that victim has at best a 25 percent chance of survival, depending on their age and condition. From 2010 to 2014, Dormsjo added, the District issued 17,379 citations for such violations, or just under 3,500 per year; that’s less than one percent of the nearly 2 million speed violations registered over the same period.

“I would like for the District to never issue this violation,” he said. “But we need to be tough, and fair, to violations that are contributing to over a third of our fatalities.” There were more than 25 traffic fatalities in D.C. last year; Dormsjo said impairment contributed to “at least 40 percent” of recent traffic fatalities.

Despite these remarks, Cheh pressed Dormsjo on the relationship between higher fines and less-dangerous driving behavior, asking for a specific correlative analysis, and questioning whether an $1,000 penalty would actually deter speeding. Dormsjo responded that, although DDOT is focusing on “super-speeding behavior… there’s not an airtight scientific formula that we can go to as a reference point” for determining how much a hefty fine increase would reduce bad behavior.

Installing more red-light cameras around D.C., Cheh added, might better diminish speeding than increasing fines.

As for why the proposed rules seem to center mostly on dangerous driving rather than on risky cycling or walking, Dormsjo said they’re “a function of what precedent exists in other cities.” Still, by the end of his testimony, the director and councilmember appeared to agree that the public’s perception of the fairness of stricter traffic rules are essential to their feasibility.

We think it’s important that people will respect laws that make sense to them,” Dormsjo said. “If we have miscualcuated on one or more of these, certainly we are going to make some changes, because we want to have not universal acceptance, but we want to have broad acceptance.”

“I think you’ve hit on it—what you’re doing has to be perceived as legitimate, fair, and proportional,” Cheh replied. “Instead of people thinking this is [for] revenue-raising, they should have confidence that each of these fines and new infractions in the amounts that will be assessed for the purposes of safety” were “thoughtful” and data-driven.

You can read D.C.’s Vision Zero action plan here.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery