On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
According to a recent report by AAA, police issued nearly three million traffic and parking tickets last year, totaling around $375 million.
That figure is up from $324 million in 2018 and $306 million in 2017. Over the past three years, D.C. has issued $1 billion in traffic tickets. Of the three million tickets issued in 2019, nearly half were from traffic cameras.
AAA has called D.C.s traffic enforcement practices “predatory.” Are they? And is any of this actually about keeping people safe?
Produced by Kurt Gardinier
- Mary Cheh Member, D.C. Council (D-Ward 3); @marycheh
- Priya Sarathy Jones National Campaign Director, Fines and Fees Justice Center; @FinesandFeesJC
- David Alpert Founder and President, Greater Greater Washington; @alpert
- Rachel Maisler Ward 4 Representative, Chair, D.C. Bicycle Advisory Council; @HandlebarsDC
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned into The Kojo Nnamdi Show, on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Later in the broadcast, we'll meet a local woman who is making history in the U.S. military. But first, according to a recent report by AAA, D.C. police issued nearly three million traffic and parking tickets last year, totaling around $375 million. That figure is up from $324 million in 2018 and $306 million in 2017. And if you total those numbers, that puts the amount of tickets D.C. has issued the last three years at over 1 billion, with a "B," dollars. And of the three million tickets issued in 2019, nearly half were from traffic cameras, an increase of over 80,000 citations from 2018. AAA has called D.C.'s traffic enforcement practices predatory. Joining us now by phone is Mary Cheh. She is the Ward 3 Councilmember in the District of Columbia and is currently the Chair of the Committee on Transportation and the Environment. Mary Cheh, thank you for joining us.
MARY CHEHThank you. And good afternoon.
NNAMDIGood afternoon to you. Are you alarmed by the fact that D.C. has issued one billion dollars in tickets over the past three years?
CHEHWell, I'd like to sort of separate some things out. The number of tickets doesn't bother me that much, because if there are infractions, I think there should be citations. What is bothersome, though, is the amount of money that is being asked of people, because I think that, in many cases, the fines that we have are too high, and our method of collection and the consequences to people in that method of collection may be too harsh. And I've passed legislation. I'm happy to talk with you about that. I'm a big believer in automatic -- you know, automated traffic enforcement. I especially like them at red lights, because if we have people feeling the certainty of enforcement, then presumably, they'll change their behavior. But what is the consequence if they commit a violation?
CHEHFirst of all, I would hope that we would collect no money, because that would mean nobody is violating our laws. The laws are meant to improve traffic safety. But once there is a violation, the question is, well, what should we do about that? There is a notation that if we have really high fines, that we'll be safer, or something like that. All the data show that you need some sort of a fine, a nominal fine. But what is really key is the certainty of enforcement. And that's why automatic traffic enforcement is a good thing, I think. And the fines I have tried to push back against, you know, the raising of fines, the continual raising of fines across the board -- with some success, but not always -- but it's too simple to say, "Well, we'll just raise the fines. We'll raise the fines." It has not translated into safer streets. What translates into safer streets is a nominal fine and certainty of enforcement.
CHEHI'll just use one example. I'm sure many of the listeners are aware of this. If you travel on Connecticut Avenue north of Chevy Chase Circle, people slow down there. They follow the speed limit. You know, everybody -- you'll have that experience. And yet I think the fine over there is $30. So, it's not the amount of fine. It's the certainty of enforcement. I saw the same thing happen on Arizona Avenue in my ward, when they put the cameras in over there. I'd be pulling on to Arizona Avenue from Loughborough, and even though you're going downhill, you see all the brake lights go on, because people know that if they exceed the limit that they're going to get an automatic traffic ticket. So, that works. That works well. But the fines that we have in place, I think, are often much too high, and much too high because they don't lead to the changes...
NNAMDIAnd frankly they often don't get paid because as D.C. issues more fines than they ever have nearly half of citations last year have not been paid. Does that concern you?
CHEHWell, yes, it does. Now, part of the problem is that many of these citations are to people who are not in the District, and we only have limited ways of recovering that money. There are some ways to recover it if they happen to be in the District with their car and they owe us money. We have the authority to boot them and to tow their cars. If they want to do business somehow in the District of Columbia and need a permit or need another requirement we have what's called clean hands before you can get those permits or whatever authorization you need from us. You have to clear up the money that you owe. We're also trying to get the surrounding jurisdictions to enter into some cooperative agreements among each other for the collection. But a lot of that is not money that we have been able to collect, because the drivers are people from other jurisdictions.
NNAMDIOther states. Is there any way to fix that?
CHEHIt's usually Maryland or Virginia.
NNAMDIIs there any way to fix that at all?
CHEHWell, we are trying to negotiate or talk with our neighbors to see if we can get some kind of an agreement about how we might do that. So, yes, it's something that we're working on. We haven't secured a system yet. But I do want to say something also about not only the high fines and the fact that they don't translate into safety, but also these high fines that we have, have resulted in many people, you know, low income people, people on the margins, it turns out that we're crushing them with these fines. Now, of course, again, you could say, "Well, abide by the law, and you won't get fined." But, nevertheless, I mean, things happen. People incur fines. I did pass a law in 18 that does do something to aid with that. It's going to cost a lot of money to fund it. We haven't gotten it yet. But it would a longer period of time to pay the fine, instead of 30 days right now.
CHEHIf you don't pay it in 30 days it doubles. It would give 60 days. This is this Ticket Repayment Amendment Act that I have. It also would allow people to pay off the fine by community service and, you know, to think of other ways so that people are not overcome by fines and doubling of fines, etcetera. And it includes, you know, for example, the idea that you can't suspend somebody's driver's license because they owe fines.
NNAMDIWell, I have to tell you --
CHEHThat's a downward spiral for people.
NNAMDIIf Jeff Besos --
CHEHYou know, and if they don't have a license --
NNAMDISorry to interrupt, but I was about to say when you talked about it being very hard on low-income people. If Jeff Besos was not wealthy, he'd be doing a heck of a lot of community service, because he raked up $16,800 in parking tickets while his mansion was being renovated. But I know you have to go, so quite quickly, is it too easy --
CHEHNo, no, no. I'm happy to stay on the phone. This is important. And I'm here. Maybe you want to go on to somebody else, that's fine. But I'm here, you know, to answer questions that you have, because I think this is very important. And, you know, I don't think -- you know, for example, AAA puts out these reports. And good for them. But, you know, they have a car orientation. And so they're going to focus on that. But I don't think that, you know, their approach to the problem is necessarily the one that I would follow. But I do agree that some amounts of money do raise eyebrows. And I have written to DDOT, and I ask them each year to give me a list places where these automatic traffic enforcement cameras are. I want to know the highest-producing cameras. And then I want them to explain to me why that's the case.
CHEHAnd sometimes they've made some changes. But mostly, they say, "No. Everything is fine." But at least, you know, we have to look at that.
NNAMDIGot to interrupt, because as you did point out we do have other guests in studio. Glad you could stay with us for a little while longer. Joining us in studio is Priya Sarathy Jones, National Campaign Director at the Fines and Fees Justice Center. Thank you so much for joining us.
PRIYA SARATHY JONESThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAlso with us is David Alpert. He's the Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC's Sustainable Transportation. David, thank you for joining us.
DAVID ALPERTGood to be here, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd Rachel Maisler is a Ward 4 Representative and the Chair of the D.C. Bicycle Advisory Council. Rachel, thank you for joining us.
RACHEL MAISLERThanks for having me.
NNAMDIPriya, I'll start with you. Is it too easy to get a ticket in D.C.? According to AAA, there are 200 ways to get one.
JONESYes. It's pretty easy. I live in D.C., and I also work for a national organization dedicated to these issues. And what I've experienced by personally living here and seeing sort of these issues pop up across the country are that, you know, governments are looking for ways to generate revenue, right. There was a great recession about 10 years ago. And once that happened, governments were trying to figure out what can we do to fill these budget gaps? And one really easy thing to do is increase and your fines and add fees onto things, and sort of no one is looking at how that's happening or has to sort of answer that. So, in D.C., they've been able to generate -- or at least issue, I would say -- a lot of tickets here using these cameras and using sort of some of these tactics to generate revenue.
NNAMDILet's talk about the use of traffic cameras. If they were a deterrent, wouldn't the number of tickets issued be going down and not up?
JONESYeah. I think that, you know, specifically talking about the use sort of cameras, cameras alone aren't really linked to the deterrence of behavior. There's a lot of other factors that go into that. And one of those is really awareness and knowledge. Kennel Worth Avenue exit has a red light camera. You're coming off of 50 where the driving speed is 50 miles per hour, and right when you get off, it's 25, with no signage, and then you get the ticket. I got that ticket four times before I went back and saw what was it that I was doing that triggered this ticket. And I realized that there's no warning between getting off at 50 and the sort of speed camera happening and the speed going back up. As soon as I became aware of what was happening, I was able to correct my behavior. I was also fortunate enough to pay off those tickets. And so that is sort of the larger issue is that there is also no evidence that the dollar amount associated with the fine is what deters the behavior.
JONESAnd there's a lot of consequences in using that approach on vulnerable populations within communities.
NNAMDIIf you've called, and many of you have, stay on the line. We will get to your calls. I just wanted to get our questions in to our guests before we went to the phone. So, hang in there. We'll get to you. Priya, what role is your view does race play in all of this?
JONESI think that you would be sort of burring your head in the sand if you didn't think that race a factor in some of either how these decisions were made, or at least who they're impacting. So, although D.C. does not suspend driver's licenses anymore, they still prevent the renewal of them, which ends up having sort of the same effect down the road. At the time in which they were suspending driver's licenses for failure to pay, 80 percent of those suspensions were to African Americans within D.C. So, that sort of shows you that there is something happening where there's a certain community within D.C. that is unable to pay or not paying their fines. And the consequences that they are suffering are more significant than those who can pay. And there's national evidence that shows that cities that have an increase of one percent population of African Americans, they increase their reliance on fines and fees, as well. And so there is a direct correlation between --
NNAMDIIs that a racial demographicm or is that really an income demographic?
JONESI mean, there's an overlap here. So, when you look at certain communities, what we know is that there's a disproportionate impact in communities of colors even in sort of middle-income communities of colors their fines and fees are higher in those communities. But also in low income-communities, right. So, in every sort of aspect where the research has been done we're seeing where there are communities of color and what are the low income-communities, these types of tactics have been used.
NNAMDIDavid Alpert, does all these ticketing specifically with traffic cameras in your view make our city safer?
ALPERTI see it as being a part of an important effort to make our roads safer. We had 180 people killed last year on roads in this region, 25 in the District. Many of them disproportionately east of the Anacostia River within the District. At the beginning of the last school year, in the very first week, four people, children, were hit by people driving outside schools, and three of those were in Ward 8, east of the Anacostia River. So, what we have to figure out is what we do about this problem. And I agree with Priya and Councilmember Cheh, that just ticketing and high fines isn't going to solve it. Cameras also can be, if done right, a valuable part of doing that by having a race blind, because it's not police doing them -- the enforcement as individuals. And frequent fair way to enforce rules, but not if we get people for things that they don't even know they're doing wrong like the off ramp that Priya was talking about.
ALPERTNot if we're charging people hundreds of dollars, but like the councilmember said, on Connecticut Avenue, if you know that doing something unsafe, speeding, running red lights, which are very unsafe will get a ideally very small fine then that kind of thing can help along with designing the roads better get people to behave safely.
NNAMDIDid you just explain your fast, frequent and fair concept? Is that what you just did?
ALPERTAbsolutely. I mean, in criminal justice, there's the concept of, yeah, swift, certain and fair enforcement for something like, you know, a minor crime, stealing something. Ideally you want people to be caught quickly, have a high certainty that they'll be caught. But then not, you know, sent to jail for many years for a small theft, or something like that. A fair amount of punishment that is only what's necessary to deter it. Here, the analog for cameras would be to make sure that if you speed or run a red light, you'll get the ticket not two weeks later after you've incurred four, 12 tickets. You get it -- why not the next day or the day after? For certainty, that it's pretty reliable that doing something really unsafe will lead to getting caught. But then fair. It doesn't need to be a lot of money. You know, why not $10? Why not $5? Let's have a lot of cameras that only charge people a very small amount and they get to know right away. That would do a lot more for making the roads safe.
NNAMDISpeaking of that, Mary Cheh, before we go to break. We got this from -- somebody sent us a tweet. "Can't have certainty of enforcement when the speed limits are ridiculously high. And Mary Cheh has blocked any effort to reign in speeds. Drop the fine to $5 and trigger them at 25 miles per hour for every neighborhood street. Done." To which you say, what, Mary Cheh?
CHEHWell, I don't know what the tweeter is talking about. I have done everything possible to increase speeds. I don't know what this is in reference to. So, I'm hard pressed to respond, because I think that, you know, we should have safe speeds. And we're pursuing that, as well. You know, in fact, in the Vision Zero bill, which we're going to be moving before too long, we're going to have a lower speed on residential streets, for example. And so, again, I don't know what the caller, tweeter, whoever they are, is talking about.
NNAMDIBefore we go break, Rachel Maisler, there are 126 traffic cameras in the city. Is that too many or too few?
MAISLERSo, automated traffic enforcement is an issue that the Bicycle Advisory Council takes very seriously and is one our legislative priorities for this year to work with the Council on. And we do think that it's too few cameras. But it's also the placement of the cameras. To Priya's point, is it on, you know, coming off a highway exit ramp where you don't see the signage, where drivers are going from 45-50 miles an hour? I often think of the camera in 395, what's that going to do to protect the safety of vulnerable road users? Or is it the camera on Connecticut Avenue? You know, looking at Connecticut Avenue outside the studio right now. And I've seen a couple bicyclists go by, and because of current events, not much traffic, thankfully. But are the cameras being used to slow down drivers when they're going to be at conflict with vulnerable road users, or are they being used to generate revenue, like some of the tunnel and highway cameras?
NNAMDIAnd you seem to think they're the latter. We've got to take a short break. When we come back, if you have called stay on the line. We will get to your calls. Councilmember Mary Cheh, thank you so much for joining us.
CHEHOkay. Do I have one second to respond to 395? I asked about the increase in the fines over there. And because it goes from, whatever, 50 or 55 down to 40, and the explanation was that if you go through that stretch, you know, where you get off for Nationals Park and so on, the explanation was that there's ingress and egress and you have to sometimes traverse four lanes. There's too much going on to allow that higher speed limit. So, the answer there is not to change the limit where you need a lower speed. The answer is perhaps to get better signage to cue people in that the speed limit is going to go down, instead of just abruptly, it goes down. So, I just wanted to add that point.
NNAMDIWhat's the difficulty with getting better signage? What the obstacle?
CHEHWell, there isn't difficulty in getting better signage. It's just, you know, that you have to keep pestering DDOT to get out there and provide better signage. In some cases, they have done so when I've complained about, you know, the number of tickets that are being generated. There's even one spot, you know, in my ward where it was operating almost like a speed trap, because it was downhill. It opened up to two lanes. And, you know, there was no warning that you would be just -- you would be doing this lower speed limit. You can't just do the legal minimum with signs, and that's what DDOT does. It looks at the federal transportation rules and says, "No. That's what they say is adequate for signs." We can do more. We could have better signage and notice to people. And so they can comply.
NNAMDII guess that means you have to keep calling the Department of Transportation. Councilmember Mary Cheh is a Representative of Ward 3 in the District of Columbia, currently the Chair of the Committee on Transportation and the Environment. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, if you have called, stay on the line. We will get to your calls. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're discussing whether D.C.'s traffic ticketing is predatory, as the AAA claims. We're talking with Rachel Maisler. She is the Chair of the D.C. Bicycle Advisory Council. David Alpert is the Founder and President Greater Greater Washington and the Executive Director of D.C.'s Sustainable Transportation. And Priya Sarathy Jones is the National Campaign Director at the Fines and Fees Justice Center. Here is Doug, in Annandale. Doug, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DOUGHi. Thanks for taking my call. I've lived in and around the D.C. area and worked there for 30 years. It seems to me that most of these cameras are actually put in poor areas, and I feel that they're usually pretty predatory. Could you confirm for me is that is true or not?
JONESSo, I don't know specifically in D.C. exactly where all of their cameras are located. It wouldn't surprise me to know that there are more. And there could be valid reasons, too. So, I think this is sort of the nuance of the point, is that there are valid public safety reasons for you to be looking at what do your traffic stops look like, what do the lights look like, where cameras are necessary to deter behavior. But then, the camera, one by itself won't do it. So there's a lot of other things, social factors that go into deterring behavior. And the other piece of it that we are really on is what is an equitable fine? And what does it mean -- I'm glad you brought up sort of the Jeff Bezos example. I didn't know how many tickets he got here. But what it takes to deter the Jeff Bezos, you have the richest man in the world who lives here. And you have some of the poorest people who live here, right? So, what it takes to deter Jeff Bezos, what it takes to deter me, and what it takes to deter a low income or minimum wage worker in D.C. are a very different things.
JONESAnd the consequences we all face for those choices or inability to do certain things are vastly different. And we have to consider that.
ALPERTAs far as where we've located some of the, I would say cameras, we want to look at where we have located some of these high speed commuter thorough fair roads that go through our neighborhoods. Poor neighborhoods, black and brown neighborhoods in the District had more places where in past decades people just blasted through a big road that cut the neighborhood in two and leads a lot of people from farther away to be driving very fast through that area, and then designed it for fast driving, not as a neighborhood street for the people living there, for fast driving. Then it's dangerous. That's why so many people are killed on roads like Southern Avenue and Alabama Avenue and so forth in the District, because we haven't designed the roads over all these years to be safe for people in the community. And then people are speeding and then it's dangerous. And then that's why you end up with enforcement activities in those areas.
NNAMDIHere's Brad in D.C. Brad, your turn.
BRADYeah. Thank you for taking my call. I recently had my car towed for what was many thousands of dollars of unpaid tickets, which I had never received. And, you know, I understand the theory and I agree with much of what's been said about low-value tickets. The things that led me to really feel like this really predatory is, you know, one the doubling of fees very quickly. Two, after 90 days, you can't even challenge a ticket. It's locked. And three, once your car is towed or booted, you can't go on a payment plan. And so I ended up having to sell off retirement funds at a huge penalty to get my car back. And was told by office staff at the, you know, in the payment office that I shouldn't feel as bad because there was just a senior citizen, you know, lost her car because she couldn't go on a payment plan, either. So, it wasn't just applying to me, which, you know, I can tell you it didn't really make me feel much better. So, I think the idea of being able to, A, ensure that all of our speed limits are rightly adjusted.
BRADYou know, 25-mile-an-hour speed limits on six-lane roads in the city is not necessarily appropriate. And then that the fines are really limited, and you have an ability to do something about them and go on payment plans if you end up with --
NNAMDIBut, Brad, I have to interrupt and ask, why did you not get any of the notices?
BRADI don't -- you know, that's a great question. I don't know.
NNAMDIDid you change addresses?
BRADI did, at some point. But, you know, the addresses were right. It's a question I can't answer. And I've been scratching my head. It's possible I missed a couple in the mail. But most of them, I didn't miss the volume that I got. But that was part of the problem, was I couldn't explain that. And therefore -- but even if I had been able to explain it, after 90 days, you can't do anything about it. Nobody is allowed to adjust a fine after 90 days. So, even if I had had a problem with the address, I would have been stuck.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for you call. Rachel Maisler, it's my understanding that, currently, MPD, the Metropolitan Police Department runs the traffic enforcement program. But you believe that DDOT, the Department of Transportation, should. I thought they did.
MAISLERSo, I think, bureaucratically, it got changed to DDOT. And I know that Councilmember Cheh had some thoughts on where the program should live. But what I'd like to see DDOT do with the program that I think MPD hasn't done is use the data, move the cameras around to inform engineering changes to the roads. To Priya's point, do we need more signage? Do we need curb bump outs? What do we need to do to slow drivers down?
NNAMDIHere is Bruce in D.C. Bruce, your turn.
BRUCEYeah. Thank you very much for taking my call. I've been riding my bike around Washington D.C. since 1990, and it feels like it gets safer and safer year by year. So, many thanks to Rachel and her organization for that. On this issue, specifically, I resonate with what Mary Cheh said about the Connecticut Avenue traffic cameras, where everybody just slows down. There's another in New Hampshire, where everybody just slows down and then they speed right back up. I'm not sure that really adds to the level of safety. It does seem like that is just -- I mean, maybe it's not bringing in much money, either. Unless it's bringing in money, it doesn't seem like it accomplishes much. The cameras I would like to see a lot more of are the stop sign and red light cameras. And it does feel like people know where they are and know where they're not. And the places where they're not, people run the lights, which is extremely unsafe. And the people -- and where people know that they exist, people stop.
BRUCEAnd I'm wondering, in particular, what Rachel thinks about that from a bike safety advantage. But anybody else who wants to weigh in, too.
NNAMDIRachel. You have been called on.
MAISLERThanks, Bruce. So, I think the stop sign cameras could go a long way in bicycle and pedestrian safety, micro mobilities or safety, in general, and the red light cameras, as well. And, again, you know, like you said, Bruce, when there are cameras at those locations, it does change behavior. And that's, I think the goal of this system. It's not to generate revenue. It's to change behavior.
NNAMDIPriya, are there cities in the U.S. that are going in the opposite direction from the District, that is, cities that are lowering fines and decreasing the number of traffic cameras?
JONESYeah. I think we're seeing a momentum in movement across the country as more and more cities are becoming aware of both the consequences of their practice and what they're actually doing. So, some of the points that the caller has made is when we're looking at -- so, in D.C., they can garnish your taxes if you have unpaid fines and fees. And that is one thing they are doing, so you owe the money. The debt collection after 90 days, they charge 20 percent to collect the debt on top of the unpaid fines and fees, right. No payment plan options, nothing meaningful. Like we're seeing cities looking at: how are we really assessing fines and fees towards our community? What is the impact on our communities and how can we get away from these really harmful practices? And we actually have a cities and counties project that we just launched where we're going to be working very intensely with cities and counties around the country who have already shown, as leaders and an interest in sort of getting away from doing this, while still having public safety at the forefront of their minds. But that it doesn't come at the cost of the some of the vulnerable populations that have been paying these fines and fees.
JONESAnd paying in the consequences of these fines and fees to sort of keep cities thriving, which has really been inequitable and just unfair and unjust.
NNAMDIPriya Sarathy Jones is the National Campaign Director at the Fines and Fees Justice Center. David Alpert is the Founder and President Greater Greater Washington and the Executive Director of D.C.'s Sustainable Transportation. And Rachel Maisler is a Ward 4 Representative and the Chair of the D.C. Bicycle Advisory Council. Thank you all for joining us. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll meet a local woman who is making history in the U.S. military. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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