Maryland resident Beverly Hunt said she gets a little apprehensive whenever she crosses the District line and she is extra vigilant as she travels to business meetings and other activities in the city.
Her biggest fears are speeding cameras and the range of automated ticketing instruments city officials have installed all around the District of Columbia.
"I think it's a rip-off," said Hunt, who runs a small public relations consultancy. "I get them all, speeding and everything else. I think the city could be more creative in ways to get money, such as casinos, for example. Everyone is getting into gaming. It's so ridiculous the amounts you pay. If I can meet in Maryland I do to avoid the speed traps and cameras, I do."
Hunt, 47, is not alone. A groundswell of anger has forced some city officials to revisit the question of automated ticketing at a time when the District is on a record pace to shatter the amount of money it collected last year.
D.C. Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), said she and her colleague Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), are in the process of bringing together a taskforce to study several elements of the issue, particularly the amount of fines the city is imposing.
"It's not a single thing that made us decide to do this," Cheh said. "The fines for automated traffic violations have gone up significantly. I've been hearing it from citizens who say it's too much too fast."
Cheh, 61, said a number of her colleagues have discussed the problem and she described the process as "having a lot of moving parts." She said anybody speeding in the District or running red lights will not get her sympathy because of the danger those actions pose to pedestrians and fellow drivers.
She acknowledges that the tickets and fines do increase revenue, in part, adding that safety should be first and foremost in any consideration of what automated ticketing is supposed to achieve.
That argument is posited by John B. Townsend II, a spokesman for the American Automobile Association's (AAA) Mid-Atlantic region, which has been one of D.C.'s harshest critics. He said he and many other D.C. residents are not opposed to fines as a way to encourage motorists to drive more safely but he said he and other critics are vehemently opposed to the way that the District is milking residents.
Townsend said in the past, city officials never bothered to address the issue before for one important reason.
"Their perception is most of these people who are getting these tickets live outside the District, so we don't have to worry about them, they can't vote us in, they can't vote us out. So it comes down to raw politics," he said. "What's different this time is that it's people inside the District who are complaining. Nobody likes $125 tickets. They'll send you a ticket, you get it three weeks later, and after seven days, it doubles."
And while it's true according to statistics compiled that the majority of those receiving tickets in the District are predominantly out-of-state drivers, so many District residents are getting hung with exorbitant tickets that they are lashing out.
The District's Department of Motor Vehicles reported earlier this year that D.C. drivers were only responsible for 16.78 percent of all tickets, while Maryland and Virginia drivers combined were to blame for more than 60 percent of them. Of the 679,000 speeding and red light camera violations that were eligible under the amnesty, the report said, Maryland drivers were responsible for almost 430,000 of them.
Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) recently announced his intentions to raise an additional $30 million from automated ticketing while at the same time continues to insist that the cameras are primarily for safety purposes.
Townsend said Gray's argument is disingenuous.
"It's obfuscation, like a political campaign," he said. "People are saying that they [elected officials] aren't telling the truth. All TV stations are responding to the fact that it's D.C. residents who're responding to the law. They [politicians] want to say to people, 'we care about your issues.'"
"It's time for D.C. residents to get involved in these issues [because] anyone who wants to run for mayor is sensitive to this issue."
A letter from Lisa Sutter, a program manager with the Metropolitan Police Department's Homeland Security Bureau to a Bloomingdale resident explains officials' thinking: In 2010, the fines for the most frequent traffic violations in the District were increased to align with the significantly higher fines in Maryland and Virginia. Before the increase, in D.C., speeding 11-15 miles per hour mph over the speed limit incurred a fine of $50. In Maryland the fine is $90, and at $126, Virginia's fine was more than twice that of D.C.'s. At 20 mph over the speed limit, Maryland's fine increases to $160, and in Virginia, the motorist must appear in court. Some drivers seemed to treat the District's lower fines as a pass to speed up once they reached District streets. Therefore, the District raised its fines to deter illegal and dangerous driving.
Townsend said the numbers tell the story.
"We reported that they'd [the District] taken in $55 million, but they took in $60 million and 90 percent of that was cameras – that was for FY 2011," Townsend explained. "As of April, they had taken in $45 million in the new fiscal year. Through June, they have collected $60 million. Last year was a record year and they've already matched last year's record. They will break it and Gray said he wants to take in $30 million more, so they're on line to set a record."
But the public is fighting back.
At the AAA's prompting, more than 8,000 District residents contacted the council to register their anger and to demand that the fines be scaled back.
Cheh, it appears, is listening.
"The certainty of enforcement can be a deterrent but it should be more nuanced," she said during an interview Tuesday.
She suggested graduated fines based on the number of offenses, separating speeding offenses from other violations and making sure the size of the fine matches the level or severity of the offense.
Townsend points to former Mayor Adrian Fenty as the person who began the push to use automated traffic offenses not to fatten up city coffers but to close what was a significant budget shortfall.
"Mayor Fenty approved the increase of 71 traffic fines and raising various business fees as a part of balancing the budget," he said. "That generated $7 million for that fiscal year.We don't mind if its safety but when you try to quantify this as raising money then that's a big problem. People need to raise all kinds of hell."
Just last week, Townsend said, city officials installed 11 new speed cameras, including on Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue in Northeast where the camera is hidden behind a post.
He expects lots of drivers to be ticketed because motorists will drive at the speed they perceive the road is built for. So if they are on a four-or six-lane highway, they will drive faster.
"They know a road that is big or wide is built for more speed," said Townsend. The speed limit on the Capital Beltway is 55 but nobody drives that.
Townsend scoffed at new listed speeds of 25 and 35 miles an hour in some communities.
"You dog could walk faster than 25 miles per hour mph. You'll be driving with your foot on the brake pedal," he said. "An African bush elephant travels at a top speed of 24 mph, the black mamba, 20 mph. Your house cat travels at a top speed of 29.8 mph, a giraffe 32.3 mph and a horse runs at 54.7 mph. If Ringling Brothers brought a grizzle bear here, it would be traveling faster than most drivers and it would probably get a ticket too. It's silly but that's the way it is."
Hunt, co-founder of College Shine, an Internet website that helps international students link with U.S. colleges and universities, said she favors a more sensible approach.
"Instead of worrying about giving tax breaks to companies like Living Social, why not help small businesses and regular people?" she asked. "I have many professional friends who are facing a financial challenge because of all these tickets. While I'm a big fan of Living Social, I'd prefer that I not have to bear the burden of the city trying to balance its books."