By Martin Di Caro • March 3rd, 2017
District transportation officials on Friday defended a proposal to increase fines for more than two dozen moving violations in an effort to eliminate all traffic-related deaths in D.C. by 2024.
But the new schedule of fines proposed under Vision Zero, as the initiative is known, came under sharp questioning by Ward 3 Council member Mary Cheh. During a public hearing before a D.C. Council panel, she grilled Leif Dormsjo, the head of the the District’s Department of Transportation, about whether he had any evidence that higher fines would actually deter risky behavior by drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians.
“There is still this question of legitimacy,” said Cheh. “I want to see if we can find out how you are arrived at these numbers. What does the amount of a fine have to do with ultimate compliance?” Citing a proposed fine change for driving on the sidewalk, she argued that DDOT did not providee any data on how often that offense occurs in the District.
“How low do you want to go with these dangerous behaviors?” responded Dormsjo, whose agency already has dropped the amounts of the proposed new fines from that it had initially proposed last year. “What do you think the fine for colliding with a bicycle should be?” he asked Cheh.
“You are the experts,” the Council member responded. “The question is what does DDOT have to justify the change it wants to make?”
At issue is whether fines may become punitive instead of acting as a deterrent. For instance, the current penalty for driving at least 26 miles per hour over the speed limit on a city street is $300. DDOT first proposed raising it to $1,000 before settling on $500 – a sum AAA MidAtlantic calls “draconian.”
Exhaustive research isn’t necessary to determine what fines should be for safety violations on the roads, the city’s transportation director insisted.
“I would plead with you and your colleagues not to compel us to do a multi-year study of every single one of these behaviors because I am not even sure how we would do it and I don’t think it would lead us to a better result,” Dormsjo said to the panel. He promised Cheh his agency would provide the basis for the most recently proposed fines, which could take effect within the next couple months barring further Council objection.
In the first year after the District adopted the Vision Zero goal, motorists paid a record $199 million in traffic fines last year, according to AAA MidAtlantic, largely from the city’s network of automated speed and red light cameras. But the number of traffic fatalities remained at 26 in 2016 – the same figure as in each of the prior two years.
“There is no empirical evidence that a relationship exists between the amount of speed camera ticket fines and compliance,” said AAA’s John Townsend. “The District Department of Transportation has failed to establish the nexus, although one of the key pillars of the Vision Zero plan is evidence-based and data-driven road safety management.”
Others testified in favor of higher fines, including Mark Eckenwiler, an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner in the Capitol Hill neighborhood.
“It is clear that the level [of fines] we have today is not enough,” he said. “We see dangerous driver behaviors all over the District. People are clearly not deterred from engaging in things like running red lights and U-turns literally through the crosswalks on Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest.”