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Questions About Traffic Cameras

The District should suspend its traffic camera enforcement program until a review can assure drivers that all the cameras are working properly.

The public must have confidence in this technology, especially now that Montgomery County is launcing a speed control program that uses cameras to enforce speed limits and Virginia is about to re-establish it's red-light camera enforcement program.

In today's Post, Nikita Stewart and Yolanda Woodlee reported that many of the District's red-light cameras are broken. Meanwhile, Miranda Spivack reported that Montgomery County and several municipalities have begun a 30-day testing period during which warning notices will be sent to speeders who come within range of the new cameras. (Montgomery already uses cameras to catch red-light runners.)

I believe these programs are important aids to police and the public in controlling two of the main causes of traffic accidents. But they not only have to work, they also have to work convincingly.

That is not the case as of today: ATC, the company taking over the District contract, reported that half the cameras have been out of service in recent months. The cameras have been operated by that company's main rival, ACS.

Montgomery County has a contract with ACS for the new speed cameras.

Many drivers don't need any help to be cynical about the camera programs. They see them as money-raisers for the jurisdictions involved -- "gotcha" programs, rather enforcement tools that can save lives at dangerous intersections or in school zones and residential neighborhoods.

Actually, the camera laws tend to build in many restrictions on how they operate. The new Montgomery County program is a good example. You can go to the county police department Web site and find a list of all the school zones and residential areas where you could get a $40 ticket for exceeding the 35 mph speed limit by 10 mph. There's nothing unfair about that.

You can look here to read the elaborate precautions in the red-light camera bill that passed the Virginia General Assembly and is likely to be signed by Gov. Tim Kaine.

Those provisions include: "Any locality that uses a traffic light signal violation monitoring system shall evaluate the system on a monthly basis to ensure all cameras and traffic signals are functioning properly. Evaluation results shall be made available to the public."

If that had been done in the District, the program could have been spared this setback. But now that it's happened, the city needs to conduct a quick and energetic review, present the results to an already-skeptical public and fix what's wrong.

By Robert Thomson  |  March 13, 2007; 6:10 AM ET
Categories:  Commuting  
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