Earlier this year, the Washington Post reported that the District of Columbia government had reaped $92.6 million from issuing traffic tickets. This is a record amount, $12 million (13%) more than the previous year.
According to the Metropolitan Police Department’s website, DC has over 120 traffic cameras. Mayor Vincent Gray suggests that the way to reduce the budget deficit protect pedestrians is to “cover the entire city” with traffic cameras. Apparently, the Mayor does not see a massive expansion of government surveillance of the public as raising any civil liberties issues. He denies the DC government is expanding traffic camera use to raise revenues.
But try selling that bag of goods to anyone who visits DC or lives here.
Each weekday at 4pm, traffic enforcement officers and tow trucks swarm upon the tourists who have parked their cars outside the Smithsonian and other museums on Independence and Constitution Avenues. Woe to these folks who fill the parking meters but do not notice the small print signs forbidding parking during rush hour. They return from their family fun to find their cars missing. Panic ensues, followed by time spent trying to figure out where their car is, taking a pricy cab ride out to the towards on the edge of town, and paying hundreds of dollars in penalties. This sort of experience does not comport with DC’s effort to woo out-of-towners.
And then there are those of us who live here and pay hefty taxes in exchange for mostly lousy schools, intrusive health mandates, and obnoxious, errant letters from the DC Office of Tax and Revenue. We too are sheep for the fleecing.
In June, I parked my vehicle on Capitol Hill, dropped coins in the meter, and returned 10 minutes later to find myself ticketed. What had I done wrong? My windshield displayed a current DC registration sticker on it—but my misdeed was to also display a recently expired DC registration sticker. For this naughty behavior, I was required to pay a $15 fine.(1) Now, the whole point of a registration sticker is to enable DC traffic officials and police to easily see that a vehicle has been registered and meets safety standards. The fine for failing to display a current registration sticker is $100, last I checked. o.k., fine. But what possible public policy justification can there be for fining someone for the failure to remove an expired sticker, especially when right next to it is a current sticker? Answer: There is no good argument. This is an example of bureaucratic overreach and a thirst for ticket revenues.(2) Apparently, the DC government has fined other residents for this recently. (See here.)
Two weeks after my illegal sticker incident, the family and I were returning from a fun day in Annapolis. We proceeded west on Route 50 into the edge of Washington, DC, where the six-lane wide freeway morphs into the six-lane wide New York Ave NE. The speed limit drops to 35 mph, and unbeknownst to me, I was clocked doing 46 mph by a speed camera. Two weeks later, I received in the mail a ticket demanding payment of $125 within 30 days. Failure to pay up would lead to the fine doubling to $250. Fortunately, my family can handle a $125 fine. But I fear for the people out there who are living paycheck to paycheck. Such harsh penalties ($75-$250 per offense) can make the difference between covering the bills and putting food on the table and, well, not.(3)
What is to be done?
Spreading the news about these outrages and griping to public officials is the first step. (Yes, please share this blog post—there are share buttons below.) And informing elected officials might help. The contact information for the Executive office of the Mayor is here (and he is on Twitter), and the Council’s members (excluding those hauled off to jail) are here. And, the next time there is a local election, it is worth asking candidates (incumbents and newcomers) to go on record—do you believe the DC Government’s should ticket a vehicle owner for having an expired sticker? Do you think motorists should be fined hundreds of dollars for modest speeding infractions? Already, Council Member Muriel Bowser has expressed reservations. “I do think we are reaching a point where people have had enough of tickets…We have gone overboard with this.”
Who knows, over time the DC Government might rethink matters and quit treating motorists as an easy revenue source.
(1) Readers might wonder why I hadn’t scraped off the old sticker. Fair question. The answer is that the stickers make a mess when you take them off. The stickers are designed to fall apart when you try to scrape them off, and the glue that adheres them to the window is really powerful. You need to use a razor and nail polish remover to remove the gluey glop left behind. It is a time-consuming and royal pain in the rear—although the DC government helpfully informs drivers that they can drive to one of the DMV centers and wait in line for a DC employee to use a special scraper to remove the sticker gratis.
(2) The prosaic issues should not obscure the more fundamental question, “Why should any government have the power to demand I remove an expired sticker and fine me for not doing so?”
(3) Roughly, a person making $40,000 before taxes takes home approximately $500-$600 in pay, or $2,000-$2,400 a month. One additional problem with speed cameras is that drivers may trip them without knowing it, and so may repeat their mistake again and again before they realize their error. Such happened to celebrity Chef Geoff Tracey, who racked up three $150 fines in a few days.