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Joint Public Oversight Hearing on The Use of Automated Photo Radar Cameras

Monday, October 22, 2001
Statement from the Metropolitan Police Department

Charles H. Ramsey
Chief of Police
Metropolitan Police Department

Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey delivered the following remarks to the Committee on Public Works and the Environment.

Good Morning. Chairperson Schwartz, Chairperson Patterson, Council members and guests. I thank you for the opportunity to present testimony this morning on the District of Columbia’s implementation of automated traffic enforcement programs, the public safety benefits of these programs, and on the proposed legislation that would make changes in our photo radar speeding reduction program.

As always, the text of my testimony is posted on the Police Department’s Website – Our Website also includes detailed information about the operation and results of both our red-light camera and photo radar programs. Through the leadership and vision of this Council, the District of Columbia has been able to put in place a comprehensive program to address what our citizens tell us is their most pressing public safety concern – unsafe driving.

Citywide surveys of DC residents, conducted for our Department in both 1998 and 1999, show that unsafe driving remains the top safety concern in almost every one of our neighborhoods – ahead of such problems as attacks and robberies, home break-ins, and drug dealing. The public has demanded action on this problem. And, thanks to the leadership and support of the Mayor, the Council and many other people, the Metropolitan Police Department has been able to respond with an automated traffic enforcement program that is effective, affordable, and enjoys the overwhelming support of our residents.

Despite the impression left by some of the media reporting on this issue, public opinion poll after public opinion poll shows that our residents favor the use of photo enforcement to address aggressive driving behaviors such as red-light running and speeding. AAA Mid-Atlantic’s Transportation Poll 2000 found that 77 percent of DC-area residents support the use of cameras to target aggressive drivers. Another poll, conducted by Riter Research on behalf of the 2001 regional Smooth Operator program, indicated that 78 percent of the licensed drivers in our area favor these programs. And a 2001 Harris Poll, completed for the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, showed that 73 percent of the public support red-light camera enforcement and 77 percent want more speed enforcement, especially in residential neighborhoods.

Our communities favor red-light and photo radar programs for a simple reason: the programs work. They make our streets safer – for motorists, pedestrians, bicyclists and especially children – by getting aggressive drivers to change their behavior … to slow down and to stop at red lights. I am happy to share with you today our progress to date in reducing red light running and serious speeding in the District through the use of this technology. Before I get into the numbers, let me be very clear about one thing, and that is the goal of the District’s photo enforcement program. Our goal is very simple and straightforward: to reduce the number of traffic violations in our city, thereby reducing the number of crashes, preventing injuries and saving lives. I am very pleased with our results thus far in achieving that goal.

Our red-light camera program became operational in August 1999, following a month-long warning period. Since then, we have seen a 63 percent reduction in red-light running violations at the 39 intersections where cameras are located. That is the equivalent of approximately 24,000 fewer red-light running violations each and every month, just at the intersections.

Let me give you one example: New York Avenue and 4th Street, NW, the site of one of our first two red-light cameras. In August 1999, that camera caught nearly 7,600 motorists running the red light at that location. Last month, the number of violations was fewer than 1,600 – a reduction of 79 percent. I still think that 1,600 motorists running the red light at any one intersection is outrageous. But given the traffic volume at that location and the history of crashes there, 1,600 violations a month sounds a lot better than 7,600. And New York Avenue and 4th Street is not the exception: it is the rule. We have experienced reductions in red-light running at each and every intersection where a camera has been placed – reductions that, quite frankly, would have been impossible using traditional enforcement approaches. To change drivers’ behavior, we need the type of fair and consistent enforcement that photo enforcement provides. The dramatic reductions in red-light running appear to be having an impact on traffic safety as well. In 1998, 16 percent of the traffic fatalities in the District were attributed to red-light running. Last year, the first full year of red-light enforcement, the number was just 2 percent.

At a national level, red-light running is responsible for approximately 250,000 crashes each year and at least 750 fatalities. In terms of injuries, deaths, and property damage, the cost to society of crashes caused by red-light running exceeds $7 billion dollars a year. The sad part is that these losses are preventable, and that the District of Columbia continues to bear some of those costs – both human and financial. But I am pleased to report that the costs of red-light running here in DC are lower today than they were two years ago because of the effectiveness of our automated enforcement program.

While red-light running in the District has declined, speed remains our biggest traffic safety problem. Speeding was a contributing factor in nearly 59 percent of our traffic fatalities in the year 2000, and 56 percent in 1999. Our goal now is to replicate the success we have experienced with the red-light camera program with our newest automated enforcement tool: photo radar speed enforcement. Since July 2nd, speed enforcement cameras have been deployed throughout the District, in areas where speeding has caused both crashes and fatalities. Following a month-long warning period, the photo radar vehicles have been issuing citations since August 6th.

Our current deployment includes five vehicles that rotate among 60 enforcement zones throughout all eight wards of the city. The vehicles are in operation from 6 am to 10 pm, Monday through Saturday. We are also in the process of installing a fixed-pole unit in the 600 block of Florida Avenue, NE, adjacent to Gallaudet University, the site of recent speeding-related fatalities.

Using a narrow radar beam projected across the road, photo radar detects each speeding vehicle and takes a photograph of the rear license plate of the vehicle. Uniformed, off-duty Metropolitan Police officers – all of whom are radar-certified and specially trained in photo radar – operate the vehicles, ensuring that the units are set up, tested, and operating properly. The officers are paid by the vendor from the fines collected through the program, so there is no cost to the Department and no impact on regular neighborhood patrols.

Decisions about the locations of all red-light cameras and speed enforcement zones are made by the Metropolitan Police Department. These locations are listed on the Department’s Website, part of our ongoing effort to notify motorists and others in the community about these traffic safety programs. Our goal is to get more people to obey the law, and informing the public about these programs and the consequences of violating the law is an important part of that effort.

As I mentioned earlier, we began our warning period in early July and actual ticketing on August 6th, so our results thus far are still preliminary. Nevertheless, we have already seen some encouraging trends. For example, the percentage of motorists traveling at least 11 miles per hour over the posted speed limit dropped from 31 percent during the warning period in July to 22 percent in September.

We have also seen reductions in the overall speed in many of our enforcement zones. In 25 mile-per-hour zones, for example, the average speed of all vehicles during July was 35.5 miles per hour. In August, it declined to 31.8, and in September, it fell to 31.3.

One benefit of the photo radar program is that it collects data on all vehicles that pass through the radar, although it photographs only those vehicles that exceed the threshold we have established. We are continually collecting and analyzing data, in order to maximize the program’s effectiveness. In addition, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is conducting a separate, independent study of the program to measure its effectiveness.

Ensuring the effectiveness and integrity of our automated traffic enforcement program is a goal that all of us share. And certain elements of the “Automated Traffic Enforcement Amendment Act of 2001” correspond with the steps our Department is already taking to strengthen the program. For example, the District is currently in the process of re-negotiating the contract with our vendor, Affiliated Computer Services, to switch from a per-ticket-paid fee arrangement to one that uses a fixed monthly fee. This move, I believe, will help to remove any perception that there is a financial incentive for the contractor or the District to issue more tickets.However, other elements of the proposed legislation not only would undermine the effectiveness of our photo radar program, but also could threaten traffic safety.

An example is the following section: “Where an automated traffic enforcement system is used for speeding enforcement, it shall be a defense that the speed of the offender was within 5 mph of the average speed of the flow of traffic at the time of the offense.” If I am interpreting that section correctly, it would mean that if everyone else were driving 45 miles per hour in a 25 mph zone, then I could drive 50 miles per hour and not be penalized. Besides the technical problems of trying to determine the “average speed of the flow of traffic at the time of the offense,” this type of provision sends absolutely the wrong message to motorists and to residents.

As a 33-year law enforcement veteran who has responded to far too many speeding-related crashes, this type of “everyone speeds” justification falls on deaf ears with me. More importantly, I believe it falls on deaf ears with the vast majority of DC residents, who want motorists to obey the speed limits as posted and who want our Police Department to enforce those speed limits more vigorously, not less. Ask the residents of North Capitol Street, where Ann Marie Stevenson, a senior citizen, was struck and killed by a speeding hit-and-run driver last December. Or the residents of Palisades – some of whom are hear today – where another senior citizen, Sylvia Zimmerman, was also killed by a speeding hit-and-run driver last December.

Ask those residents – and ask residents throughout the District of Columbia – whether they think the speed limits in their neighborhoods are too low. And ask them whether a dangerous speeder – someone going 15, 20, 25 miles per hour over the posted speed limit – should get away with it, just because the other fools on the road at the time are engaging in the same reckless behavior. I would hope that the Public Works Committee, and the Council as a whole, will look very carefully at this legislation and its potential impact on driver behavior and traffic safety in the District of Columbia. At a time when we are finally beginning to send a very strong message – that speeding is dangerous and that it will be enforced, fairly and consistently in our city – we do not need to be undermining that message with the type of loophole provided in the proposed legislation.

Traffic safety is a major issue for the District of Columbia today – and it will only grow in importance in the future. The most recent projections suggest that traffic in our region will increase by 40 percent over the next 20 years, but that road construction will grow by only 9 percent. If experience is any guide, District residents can expect more congestion, more frustration, and potentially more aggressive driving on our streets, as a result of these trends. In these challenging times, with increased demands on the Metropolitan Police Department as a whole, automated traffic enforcement allows us to address our citizens’ concerns about unsafe driving – and to do so without having to take officers from neighborhood patrols or other critical assignments. This is a classic “win-win” situation. And with the Council’s continued leadership and support, I believe we can achieve even greater traffic safety results in the future.

Thank you again for the opportunity to provide this statement. I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.