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Posted at 3:00 PM ET, 11/ 5/2010

Dvorak's 'windshield perspective' on speed cameras

By David Alpert

How many people worry about strangers kidnapping their children and lament the loss of life in Iraq, then put other people and their children in danger the moment they get on the road by speeding and become apoplectic if the government tries to get them to stop?

Post columnist Petula Dvorak demonstrated this "windshield perspective," which we sometimes call "Entitled Driving Journalist Syndrome," with a venomous column today. The target of her hate? Speed cameras.

She cheers the recent vandalism and arson against speed cameras, quoting residents pleased by this destruction of county property. She calls the cameras "vile devices," a "gargantuan gotcha," "horrid contraptions" and "a speed tax."

Facts? Who cares. She introduces the question of effectiveness with the evidently non-objective assertion, "Whether they actually reduce [crashes] is questionable."

Officials said collisions went down almost 30 percent in the sites near the cameras. But others argue they aren't very effective at curbing reckless driving.
Who are those others? Oh, just some guy in a BMW who has gotten a bunch of tickets. Because we all know that some random person on the street clearly knows whether a policy is effective simply by taking a guess. The fact is, cameras work.

The problem is that this guy in the BMW might be the next person to kill another human being in Montgomery County. He likes to speed. He's breaking the law. And the laws are there for an important reason: to protect people beside himself, or Dvorak, who apparently likes to speed herself.

Drivers like the BMW guy killed four people in one week in Montgomery County last month. But Dvorak didn't write a column about the tragedies that took those four lives and destroyed their families. She wrote about how it's so unfair that Montgomery County wants to do something about it, since it creates some inconvenience and maybe a little cost for average people like her who just want to shave a minute or two off the trip to the store. That's what's important, right?

Dvorak gets particularly irate over the way the fines are relatively low and there are no points on the license, arguing that it's an underhanded way of discouraging people from fighting the tickets. She waxes more nostalgic about "the gut-wrench of hearing a siren behind you, seeing those lights in the rearview and the officer's long walk to your car as you squirm." She even worries about revenue at the doughnut shops near where police officers used to catch speeders, before cameras allowed them to focus on other crimes.

Actually, if facts mattered, Dvorak might have found out that frequent enforcement with low-level punishment is a more effective way to stop crime than infrequent enforcement with big penalties. If someone shoplifts regularly, gets caught only once out of a hundred times but faces a year in prison the one time they do, it's not a very effective deterrent.

Most people who do it will try it once, get away with it, try it again, get away with it, and get into the habit while not really considering the danger of getting caught. Those who do get nabbed end up facing punishment that seems totally disproportionate to the crime, and that's unfair.

Instead, if a shoplifter was detected half the time but the punishment were fairly small, research like Mark Kleiman's -- that stuff that actually finds out information in a more reliable way than asking people on the street -- shows that the rate of shoplifting declines much more. The same goes for cameras. If people are much more likely to get caught but pay relatively little, it reduces speeding.

Because reducing speeding is the purpose. It's an important purpose. Unfortunately, Dvorak makes no mention in her article about the value of cutting speeding or the dangers speeding poses.

Sure, there are some problems with speed camera programs. It's true that many counties make a lot of money off the cameras, and that leads to some warped incentives. Sometimes governments place them where it will bring in more revenue instead of where there's a greater safety risk. We've even agreed with AAA when they've criticized those types of placements.

Steve Offutt suggested forbidding governments from making money on cameras, by requiring that revenue be distributed back to residents. That would be a good way to fight the problems with speed cameras. The question is, do opponents of speed cameras really object to the revenue-raising nature, or just to being forced to follow the law?

Dvorak asks readers to e-mail locations of the "sneakiest, most loathsome" cameras at Instead, why don't you e-mail her the locations of the most dangerous spots for pedestrians and bicyclists in Montgomery County caused by speeding drivers. Ask her to support speed cameras in those locations, before more people get killed.

And ask Dvorak to write a column about Samira Kelly and her 16-month-old daughter in Aspen Hill, or the many other people hit or killed in Montgomery County whose deaths might have been prevented or injuries avoided or lessened had some speed cameras taught drivers to follow the law and ease off the pedal.

David Alpert is founder and editor of Greater Greater Washington. The Local Blog Network is a group of bloggers from around the D.C. region who have agreed to make regular contributions to All Opinions Are Local.

By David Alpert  | November 5, 2010; 3:00 PM ET
Categories:  HotTopic, Local blog network, Montgomery County, traffic, transportation  
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OK first off, you are saying here 'And the laws are there for an important reason: to protect people beside himself, or Dvorak, who apparently likes to speed herself.' I will first cite this as an example of how every supporter of speed cameras resorts to ad-hominem attacks, presuming that everyone who opposes speed cameras does so because they just wanna drive fast. You are presuming that this is the motivation behind her story, and the motivation behind everyone who opposes speed cameras. I might just as well presume that Alpert likes speed cameras believes he is a chronic jay walker who believes he is entitled to walk his dog down the middle of busy 6 lane streets and obstruct traffic, or that he spends all his spare time peeping in peoples back yards looking for HOA violations, both of which are more likely than not untrue.

But lets say, hypothetically, that it were true that Dvorak has received one or more scamera tickets. Montgomery county and its municipalities have now issued in excess of 2million tickets, and nearby DC has also issued millions of tickets (the majority of which have gone to Maryland residents). There are 1 million residents in Montgomery County (some of whom are non drivers) so the group of people who have NOT gotten speed camera tickets is an increasingly rarefied group. That would only place her in the company of the majority of county residents, as well as Ike Leggett, Former DC Mayor Fenty, and hundreds of Montgomery county police officers, all of whom have been publicly documented to have gotten scamera tickets (Ike & Fenty paid, some of the police did not). The fact that most people don't investigate what the program is about until they get a ticket should not be that surprising. It may well be that she DID investigate, and the conclusions she drew was that the system was a crock of ____.

Posted by: afpre42 | November 6, 2010 7:18 AM | Report abuse

Second, most of what you hear about speed cameras is the government's official story. Montgomery county has a dedicated 'office of public information' on which is spends millions of taxpayer dollars on propaganda favorable to the county's position on various issues. Their extensive PR campaign for speed cameras is partially documented in the county's contract ( ) that contract specifically cited getting favorable stories planted in local media, and specifically named the Washington Post.

A prime example of this is the county's official story on accident rates. Here are two direct quotes from the same report which Montgomery county used to claim that speed cameras reduce accidents
"In the four years before camera activation, the County experienced an average of 15 collisions per year involving pedestrians or bicyclists within one half mile of future MCPD speed camera sites. During the year following activation of speed cameras, 22 collisions with pedestrians and bicyclists occurred in the same areas."
"In the four years prior to camera activation, the County experienced an average of two fatal collisions per year in the vicinity of future MCPD speed camera sites. Three collisions resulting in a fatality occurred in the year after camera activation."
So based on this, both traffic fatalities and pedestrian incidents INCREASED
This year Montgomery Count traffic fatalities surged, despite the county adding new camera sites, and despite the fact that nationwide traffic fatalities DROPPED during the same period. So despite adding more cameras, Montgomery county traffic fatalities unfortunately bucked the national trend -- in other words the speed cameras FAILED:

But why listen to me, there's no reason to dig deeper than the press releases from the government WHICH COLLECTS MONEY FROM THE CAMERAS is there?

Posted by: afpre42 | November 6, 2010 7:21 AM | Report abuse

Alpert has a history of hysterically attacking any reporter or article that presents a viewpoint with which he disagrees. He's the person who criticized the Post for being "too hard" on Metro. He didn't cite any wrong facts that the Post had used in its reporting on Metro; rather, he simply doesn't want public transportation criticized for policy reasons. He's simply Orwellian in his approach to journalism. You must support his party line of being anti-car and pro-cyclist or else you're be attacked.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | November 6, 2010 9:35 AM | Report abuse

This makes a good point--people will wax poetic about injustices half a world away and line up to fight diseases. All worthy causes, but when it comes to something everyone can control--i.e. not hurting another human being by not driving like a crazy person--there is very little interest. Too inconvenient, or everyone is confident it won't happen to them or to someone in their family. While I agree that there are some problems with the cameras, I really can't feel too bad for those who whine that they were caught breaking the law.
I recall Ms. Dvorak had a similar post defending the use of cell phones in cars because, despite the fact that this endangers everyone on the road and distracted driving kills thousands each year, multitasking is really convenient. I am sure that is a huge comfort to the mourning families. Apparently, we area all too busy with our own lives to worry about saving anyone else's.
Finally, speaking of the tax revenue aspect...Montgomery County refused to do anything about the speeding in my old neighborhood. When I decided to buy, I found a lovely walkable area in Arlington, and took my tax money there.

Posted by: vavoter | November 7, 2010 6:25 PM | Report abuse

Unfortunately, Samira Kelly was crossing the street against the light with her baby.

Using her utter lack of responsibility as an example as an example for why we need speed cameras doesn't make your point.

Posted by: mikecapitolhill | November 8, 2010 5:17 AM | Report abuse

Wow, David. I think you should try reading Dvorak's article over again. I don't think it's venomous, nor that she paints speeders in a good light (certainly not better than the cameras). She *does* point out some serious flaws in the system. That doesn't mean she's right, but I think you went off too quickly.

Posted by: CJH2 | November 8, 2010 10:45 AM | Report abuse

I have issues with speed cameras:
1. How can the issuer of the ticket prove that, at the time of the alleged offense, the speed camera was correctly calibrated?
2. In some jurisdictions, the speed camera ticketing is handled by private firms which introduces a profit motive.

Posted by: asher_a | November 8, 2010 12:41 PM | Report abuse

>And ask Dvorak to write a column about
>Samira Kelly and her 16-month-old
>daughter in Aspen Hill
According to the link, this incident occurred near the intersection of Aspen Hill Rd & Georgia Ave. Speed cameras are in use on both of those roads.

Posted by: afpre42 | November 8, 2010 12:46 PM | Report abuse

Hard to attach any credibility to someone who is so openly anti-car.

Posted by: ceefer66 | November 8, 2010 1:14 PM | Report abuse

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