DC pulls in a record-setting $85M from traffic cams

A little followup to yesterday's post about NoPhoto, an Indiegogo fundraiser for a flash that confounds red-light cameras: the city of Washington, DC has smashed its previous record-setting rake on its traffic cameras, pulling in $85 million in its fiscal 2012. Alan Blinder writes more in the Washington Examiner, discussing whether the city has come to think of its traffic cams as cash-cows:

"This year, we'll have more revenue than ever and more citations than ever before," said John Townsend, of AAA Mid-Atlantic. "They're closing holes in the budget."

Ward 6 Councilman Tommy Wells, a sponsor of the proposal to lower fines, leveled a similar accusation.

"The administration and some of my colleagues view this as a way to make money for the government," Wells said. "The funding is there to reduce the fines. The question is will my colleagues see this as a windfall to fund their pet projects?"

But the District government is far from the only local government to boost its bank account with camera tickets.

D.C. rakes in $85m from traffic cameras (Thanks, Marilyn!)


  1. The cameras clearly aren’t doing anything to reduce offending  – and presumably running red lights is a public danger, so that should be their principal (if not sole) aim – so what justification is there for them?

    1. I honestly think they increase traffic dangers as people drive differently through them due to the flakiness of the cameras. People speed through them, stop very hard and short before them, and generally drive worse around them. I’m surprised though that the government gets anything from them, guess it spares them some taxing. I think the ones around here are privately owned, so you an enjoy the fact that you’re enriching an amazing racket there.

      1. I seem to recall a study that suggested they were having an overall neutral effect on the number of accidents, or maybe increasing them a little, but changed the type of accidents – more rear-enders from sudden braking to avoid running lights, fewer T-bones from running them.

        In terms of safety, they seemed to have a slight positive effect – T-bones tend to be higher speed collisions, and side door crumple zones have much less safety margins than front and rear ones.

    2. Actually, they are reducing red light running.  The increase in revenue is from the huge increase in the number of cameras over the past year.

    3. I don’t have any statistics handy, but as a San Francisco pedestrian, I’ve seen the difference that red light cameras make and am wholly in favor of them.  I used to joke that SF etiquette demanded that you at least make it through before the light turned green again, but now I very rarely see significant red light running.  I’m talking about multiple cars blowing through a full red, not just in the intersection when it turned.

      Incidentally, if I remember the story correctly, the first red light camera here was put up by a lawyer who was sick of watching fatal accidents occur directly outside of his office window.

  2. I understand why some would want traffic cameras but in the end they become excuses to make money and not about traffic safety. When it becomes about generating profits the government ceases to serve the people and aims to serve their own interests. Sorry but i’ll take a huge pass on these cameras.

    1. What, exactly, do you think the District of Columbia is doing with the fines from traffic cameras?  It’s serving their own purposes? I don’t understand what the hell that means when it comes to cash-strapped local governments.

      1. I agree with you, that the revenues from traffic cameras aren’t a bad thing, and that the local government can definitely put that revenue to good use. I’m a little wary, however, of the government having an incentive *not* to reduce red light violations. A good way to keep the cameras and the revenues would be to demonstrate that the money is going directly to fund traffic safety initiatives, and/or other public safety measures.

        1. The best way is to make them revenue neutral and mandate that fines are paid to the community in which the car is registered rather than where the infraction allegedly occurred.

          1. Revenue above that needed to maintain the cameras and related expenses should be paid back to the citizenry at the end of every year.  It’s the only way to be sure.

          2. I disagree completely. Fines are intended to be punishment and disencentives for people committing these violations. How much revenue they bring in, what they cost, and whether the city can “afford to lower fines” as if they were taxes should be irrelevant. I see that there’s a clear conflict of interest here, but the way to solve it is not revenue neutrality, it’s independant oversight which judges the system on its ability to reduce infractions and improve safety. If the system isn’t doing that, it should be scrapped no matter how much money it makes. If it does that and makes money, great. If raising fines actually decreases infractions and increases safety, even better.

            I personally think that a progressive fine system should be implemented; if your car costs more than $40,000, fines should be doubled. If your car cost more than $80,000, quadrupled. More than $120,000, octupled. The fact that fines are essentially negligible for the very rich (of which there are a lot in DC) makes traffic cameras easy to ignore especially because (as I understand it) there are no points associated with an infraction caught on camera, whereas a police officer pulling someone over can assess points that ultimate result in license revocation.

          3. It is returned to them, in the form of clean water, good schools, emergency services, and law enforcement.  You didn’t think those things were free?

          4. @boingboing-e2c5182d1b95fa116e841650b6b426cc:disqus “It is returned to them, in the form of clean water, good schools, emergency services, and law enforcement.  You didn’t think those things were free?”

            Why, you’re right! The sharp decrease in the number of cholera cases in DC since they stumbled upon the idea of red light cameras is nothing short of amazing!

            Please provide actual, rather than fictitious, examples of service improvements as a result of additional red light cameras; maybe your argument will actually be worth something then.

          5. Reply to waetherman: I’d rather have higher fines in accordance with the driver’s income rather than the value of the car. That way a miserly millionaire in a beater still gets stung, but you’re not punishing an enthusiast who’s driving a classic that they’ve made that valuable by restoring themselves- or drivers of commercial vehicles or limos.

            I believe some Scandinavian countries already do that for speeding fines, and have the fine proportional to the driver’s income and the amount over the limit. IIRC the owner of Nokia once got a $50,000 speeding ticket…

          6.  @waetherman:disqus In Finland fines are based on your income so they’ve had some huge fines put on rich offenders.

          7. That doesn’t really make sense, plus, as long as DC is prohibited from collecting income tax from non-DC residents who actually work in DC, they’ll never send back money from people who break the law in DC.

        2. It should definitely be public safety first, and revenue second.

          On top of that, I understand that these these things aren’t perfect. My wife just got a ticket from a speed camera (just outside DC) but the date on it was off by a day. We should fight it, but she can’t take a day off of work to bother right now, and even though I can take a day off, it would have to be my wife who goes to court. We generally know where the cameras are, but this is a new, temporary mobile camera (I drove by it today).

          I just can’t abide these people who think everything is part of some kind of consipracy. Local governments are certainly capable of shady things, but even in places with fairly corrupt local governments (like DC), the government still serves the people. There’s no one else for them to serve.

          1. Wait.  Why should you fight it?  Because the date is off by one?  Did you wife run the light or not?

          2. Read his post- it’s a speed camera. His wife may or may not know whether she was speeding, but apparently wasn’t even in the area when she’s alleged to have been…

        3. > I’m a little wary, however, of the government having an incentive *not* to reduce red light violations.

          What difference does that make? The red lights are still there, and pretty much everybody is aware that you are supposed to stop on red. Those that don’t feel like it, and feel they can afford it, can speed on through, and pay up. Leaving the rest of us to wait, and reap the benefits of their largesse.

          What “we” are doing is allowing somebody to pay to run a red light. If there is an accident, the insurance lawyers will take care of the situation, but in the absence of an accident, the driver pays to play.

          It’s a choice — they are betting (the cost of the eventual fine) that there will be no accident. If they are correct, they pay. If they are incorrect, they potentially pay with their life.

          But that’s probably a person who would have sped on through without paying in the first place.

          [probably, possibly, maybe, guesses all. There needs to be more contextual numbers.]

      2. Using police power and health and safety regulations as a source of revenue is prima facie unethical. It doesn’t matter what the money is used for.

        1. Revenue should never be earmarked. It should go into the general fund, and then the budget is the budget. To link camera revenue with new programs for the cameras is what’s fundamentally unethical. It gives birth to whole cottage industries within the government: regulate, generate, expand, repeat. I say this whole camera business is whack.

        2. You’re not okay with fines for things?  It seems like an obvious good and keeps people out of jail.  The problem with fines is that they’re the same for zillionaires and poor people alike, except in some enlightened places. 

          It would be WONDERFUL if DC could fund itself on the backs of rich idiots doing stupid things, given that they spend a lot of  time making sure things AREN’T funded.

    2. The “excuses to make money” argument has a big flaw: the driver is performing something they know is illegal, know why it’s illegal, and are choosing to do.  Their contribution to the tax take is entirely voluntary.

      1. That simply isn’t true.  Not every red light that is run is a driver being malicious.  A lot of the time it is simply the best of bad options.  If a light turns yellow close to the point of no return zone, you can either break hard or continue forward.  Generally, it is safer to simply keep going.  If you break hard you are going to have to rely on the person behind you to be paying attention and have a decent reaction time.  This is a dumb assumption, and price of being wrong is getting whacked in the ass.  Good accident reducing driving involves assuming that everyone else around you is a moron.
        There are also grey areas.  If someone isn’t paying attention (cell phone or kids) or has had their attention pulled by something else that is urgent (biker or ped doing something stupid), and they look up and see a yellow light, what would you prefer them to do?  Under normal conditions they will decide if they can stop safely, and if they can’t, go through.  With a traffic light, it is a no brainer.  You slam your breaks and hope like hell the guy behind you is paying attention.

        This shit matters.  With hundreds of MILLIONS of people in the US alone facing intersections each day, anything you do that makes them a little more unpredictable or rare events more likely to occur is going to result in vastly more accidents.

        If we really want to go with the traffic camera on every light approach, we need to change traffic lights.  Namely, yellow lights need to display a count down so that drivers can make a better informed decision, rather than defaulting to slamming the breaks, consequences be damned.

        1. The yellow lights are timed such that if you see it and don’t have time to stop then either you will clear the intersection before it turns red or you were speeding.  I’ve definitely been in the intersection when it turned red before, and it was always because I was speeding at the time.

          1. Guess I’m just one of the stupid sheeple who hasn’t learned to hate the government sufficiently, but I can’t help that think that the fact that there are investigations and public approbation when the lights are not properly timed rather proves my point.

  3. I think it would be nice, that if the government isn’t interested in being accused of using tickets as cash-cows, that you could pick any registered non-profit organization to receive the money from the ticket.

  4. Or, it would be nice to see, in a publicly accessible way, that the revenues from traffic camera fines are going directly to traffic safety initiatives. I have no problem with collecting fines for running red lights — I have NO sympathy for anyone who runs red lights. But, it would make the effort seem like it was more in the public interest, if the revenues didn’t go into a general fund–where people who mistrust government can imagine that it goes to line people’s pockets. A good way to make the argument is to cite the number of traffic accidents, injuries, and deaths related to running red lights — in the tickets, on road signs, on a website, etc. — and then to take the next step and allocate the revenues directly to public safety measures.

    1. I think I’d be fine with the tech if the coding (setting yellow intervals and such) were set by a deliberately dis-invested third party.

  5. In a country where 30,000 die on the roads every year, in accidents primarily caused by traffic law violations, you’d think that improved traffic law enforcement would be more politically popular.

    The Dunning–Kruger effect seems to play a part here: “I am a better-than-average driver.  I got ticketed by a traffic camera.  Therefore, traffic cameras are flawed, because clearly I am not one of ‘those people’ who are dangerous drivers.”

    From a civil liberties standpoint, this seems like the wrong hill to die on.  

    1. I don’t think you’re crazy to say so, but I don’t trust underfunded munis to not cheat in their configurations.

      I think we can have both healthy skepticism over config’s fairness and encoded enforcement, but we’re gonna need to come up with better answers than the polar ends of “don’t bitch, cheater” and “all cops are assholes”.

    2. Like the guy who got hundreds of light light tickets because a camera kept taking pictures of his parked car?
      Like the towns caught playing with the timing on yellow lights leading up to where the camera was, where it was decidedly shorter to get more money.
      Like the guy who used GPS to prove he would have had to have been moving at like 120 MPH in 3 seconds to trigger the camera.
      Like the town who pursued the guy wearing a gazelle mask, going so far as to stake out his home.  They claimed they finally had pictures proving he was the one wearing the mask, but if that were true they ignored him breaking other laws just to protect against his protest about the cameras.

      Traffic Law violations = big pool to draw from.  Care to narrow that down to just red light running?

      In a country where more people die from drinking and driving than died on 9-11 why do we spend huge amounts on 1 but not the other?

      These cameras are run by 3rd parties.  There is no certification system.  It is a magic box we are to assume is always correct and perfect, even in the face of them having been found lacking in multiple cases.
      The law allows you to face your accuser, how do you question a camera?  How do you question its software?  Oh you can’t your just expected to pay the fine and move on, or try to explain to a Judge that the magical technology might be flawed and expect them to consider that possibility at all.

      Its sorta like when people took on the breathalyzer companies and they refused to turn over the software for review, and when it was discovered there were flaws the courts ruled they would not hear ANY challenges to previous cases based on the primary evidence gathering device was flawed… and Justice for some.

      1. Have you ever received a red light camera ticket?  Or are you just ranting?

        I live in DC and received a red light camera ticket. I was making a right turn, legally, on red, but the camera got me. I got a letter in the mail with pictures of my car and a citation, along with a link to a video of the alleged infraction.  I reviewed the video, which clearly showed me making a full stop and then turning right on red.  So, I checked the box on the citation to contest the video, and sent it back.  Two months later, I got a letter indicating that I had been exonerated and the citation was void.  

        No problem.

        Having had this experience, I believe the vitriol that people have about red light cameras has nothing to do with facts.  Do they cause accidents because people are more likely to stop at yellow lights?  Maybe.  But people should never be tailgating so closely that they rear-end the driver in front of them.  Hopefully as people get more used to the existence of red lights they will stop tailgating.

      2. Specifically, the answer to “How do you question its software?” is very simple, you watch the video and contest the citation.

  6. DC is notorious for its red light runners, from gangsters to foreign diplomats to drunk VIPs.  Also well know for small fines for drivers that kill pedestrians or bicyclists. 

    Joke:A guy is getting a lift from a friend.  They blow right through a red light (this is probably  Washington DC).  The passenger says “You ran a red light!” and the driver says “My brother never stops for red lights.” It happens again and the passenger says “You ran another red light!” and the driver says “My brother never stops for red lights.” So they come to a green light and the driver stops the car.  The passenger says “Why did you stop?” and the driver says “My brother might be coming the other way!”

  7. I once had an accident because of one of these.  I think I was following at a safe distance, but the lady in front of me saw yellow and STOOD on her brake at 50mph.  I slammed on mine too, but hers won.  There was no damage to her car – I was braking so hard my hood actually went under the tail of her car.

    She avoided a $100 ticket.  I had $1000 damage.  I didn’t even bother with an insurance claim, because of course the police would find me at fault.  I hit her when she was stopped at a light.

    I also got a ticket from one of these guys at 5am on Memorial day for making a right on red.  You can point out to a cop that you’re the only car on the road, but you can’t argue with the computer.  There is no recourse, and no point in fighting the fine.  Is it worth pointing out they fall heaviest on the poor?

    1. This. I have had this almost happen, despite being far behind a person who panicked at a yellow light. I’ve been lucky though had have been able to stop before contacting another car. Just scary though. Then there are the people doing the opposite, accelerating like mad through them then slowing down abruptly making it confusing and dangerous for the person behind them who typically makes it right through the same light with no problem. Then there’s the fact that if you stop at the light to make a right on red (legal here unless indicated by a sign) there is some times a small chance that they will send a fine anyway even where there is no sign to say there is no turning right on red (there is one intersection where this is illegal by me and one where it is not illegal). This means you get stuck behind people who are afraid to turn right because of the camera on the light, which isn’t dangerous but is truly annoying. The fine is low enough that if you are hourly, even if you have a legitimate dispute, it’s often not worth losing a day of pay over. If I felt safer because of them I’d be for them. But instead I avoid them even though it takes me much longer to drive around them, because I have had so many stressful encounters with them.

    2. You didn’t get into an accident because of a red light camera or because of the driver in front of you. You got into an accident because what you think is a safe distance isn’t. 

      1. That’s obviously true, but on that particular road, if one maintained a distance that was safe enough to avoid people who panic-stop unexpectedly, other drivers will honk, swerve, tailgate, and say bad words.  Before the cams were installed it was statistically the most dangerous road in America – maybe still is, I don’t know.

        But the other driver may have had something to do with it. Or do you feel that panic-stopping at 50mph, when there is no other danger in sight, is a good idea?

        1. “the lady in front of me saw yellow and STOOD on her brake at 50mph.”

          Cmon, a road which needs the traffic contol of a light system and the speed limit is 50mph? Something about this story is completely BS.

          1. Not defending the other poster’s story, but much of rural US has 55 mph roads which have stoplight intersections every 10 miles or even more.  You really are going 55 for quite some time before being put in a position where you MIGHT have to stop.

          2. We have a whole grid of streets (each square in the grid is a square mile) where the speed limit is 45 to 50 mph, and all of the intersections are controlled by traffic lights. Your BS detector needs recalibration.

          3. They’re pretty common where I live outside of the city proper, and even within there are a couple highways which become basically highways-with-traffic-lights at some point. 

  8. There’s a *question* that these cameras exist mainly to generate revenue?

    OF COURSE they mainly exist to generate revenue.

    The dirty secret of modern law enforcement is that the large majority of patrolling police humans do also.

      1. In Philadelphia, if you are poor and can’t pay the fine they allow you to sign up for a payment plan for your fines. However, if you miss a payment, guess what? Warrant, and jail. 

  9. Let’s face reality; most people don’t drive dangerously…regardless of what the pattern of paint on the metal signs by the side of the road is.  This has happened in England and will happen here too; supplemental road tax collecting machines are put in places where people “speed” because it’s safe to do so, NOT in places where it’s actually dangerous to speed, because most people don’t actually drive dangerously.

    1. I’d argue the opposite: most people DO drive dangerously, but the definition of driving dangerously should not be limited to speeding.  Give me a smart driver who knows the car and conditions well enough to know what speed is correct in that circumstance any time over the timid driver going significantly below the speed limit in a passing lane, blocking traffic, slowing down as they get to an intersection (sometimes even coming to a complete stop) only to speed up and drive through after the yellow light turns red, switching 3 or 4 lanes at the last minute to make an exit….to say nothing of the texters, phone callers, etc.  Now THOSE are dangerous drivers.  And they don’t usually get tickets.

      1.  My wife constantly tells me I’m leaving too large a gap between cars in heavily congested areas (so other cars pull in to fill the gap). “You need to get so close there’s not enough room for them to do that!” she’ll say.

        At 60mph I find it awfully hard to justify being within 20 feet of another vehicle. If somebody else wants to be an idiot and fill in the gap (or honk, or “say bad words”) — well, let ’em.

        Just because I have a life insurance policy is no reason to drive like an idiot.

  10. The problem is there is no real incentive to reduce false positives.  In fact, both the government and industry make more money when there are false positives.   I’ve heard stories from friends in DC that it’s almost impossible to contest these tickets, so people mostly just pay. 

    It’s kind of like the industry enforced copyright laws that way.

  11. Most cameras are *leased* to cities/counties….the camera owners maintain the camera and sets the “timing”. These companies also get a % of all revenue the cameras make…..isn’t that a “conflict of interest”?

    And that’s why I refuse to install a front plate….no front plate, no camera ticket (maybe a $10 fixit ticket.) Ya gotta fight these fuckers any way you can!

  12. What many don’t know is that the red light camera companies send out many “fake” tickets in situations where they don’t have a face photo or sufficient evidence to meet the requirement of the law. If they can trick you into paying, you admit you are guilty in the process of paying the fine. 

    There are a couple of differences. A fake will say “do not contact the court” because a real ticket has not been issued; while a real ticket always tells you how and where to contact the court.

    1. And this is where I really believe the whole thing exposes itself as a scam to raise revenue. Ok, you are going to use a machine to monitor us, and penalize us for our behavior. That sucks. But then when you fall short of the standard of the law for penalizing somebody, you are going to try to trick them into confessing to the violation and bully them into paying the fine. 

      To me this is the line that is crossed into unethical enforcement.

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