When it comes to serious traffic and road safety problems in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area, to quote the late, brilliant cartoonist Walt Kelly of Pogo fame: We have met the enemy and he is us. We are the reckless, speeding, and law-defying motorists not only from the District but, yes, big numbers of bad-behaving folks from Maryland and Virginia.
As 2021 drew to a close, D.C. officials expressed their exasperation at the limits of their efforts to enforce laws to safeguard motorists, pedestrians, and bicyclists in the nation’s capital, especially with a giant legal block to doing so: cooperation and help among Virginia, Maryland, and the District to enforce traffic laws and citations, also known as reciprocity.
The Washington Post, in two separate news articles, quoted District officials’ frustration over this significant and growing problem:
“Hundreds of thousands of vehicles from Maryland and Virginia have unpaid traffic tickets issued by the District, but with no regional agreement to enforce automated tickets, city officials say repeat offenders keep breaking the law without consequence.”
Reporter Michael Laris wrote this in one of the articles:
“Maryland and Virginia drivers had 1.9 million outstanding photo tickets as of the end of May, according to the city’s tally. Vehicles from other states totaled 338,000, while those from the District had 232,000, the city said. The bulk of offenders are from Maryland and Virginia, since there’s typically no downside to ignoring violation letters from the District. City officials said there is broad resistance to paying tickets from speed- and red-light cameras.”
Post reporter Luz Lazo separately quoted D.C. officials on this same problem, thusly:
Deputy D.C. Mayor Lucinda M. Babers said the city is owed as much as $500 million in unpaid parking and traffic fines. Maryland residents are responsible for about 40% of the outstanding fines while Virginians’ share is about 25% …To some lawmakers and residents, the data shows reckless motorists are ignoring fines as the city sees a record number of road fatalities. The District has recorded 40 traffic fatalities this year — three more than occurred in 2020 — and it is poised to end the year with the most deaths since 2007, when 54 road fatalities occurred. City data shows more than 4,000 people have been injured this year.
“About 550,000 vehicles with D.C., Maryland, or Virginia tags have two or more unpaid parking or traffic tickets at least 60 days old and are eligible to be booted, [D.C. Democratic Council member Mary M.] Cheh said. She said many involve dangerous driving: Roughly 5,000 vehicles have tickets for traveling at least 21 mph over the speed limit, another 150,000 for running a red light and about 50,000 have fines for running a stop sign.”
The digital doggerel (the many public comments on the newspaper’s stories on its website) about D.C.’s traffic enforcement — focusing on its heavy use of automated cameras and reducing speeds in areas where research shows these steps can boost safety — is disconcerting, at best. Those commenting, identifying themselves as suburbanites, proudly discuss their speeding and rash defiance of D.C. parking and traffic laws, accusing District officials of acting like policing pirates interested only in raising revenues by entrapping good folks from the beyond.
Really? Who really thinks that an egomaniacal motorist eager to ignore and break road safety measures in one area won’t do so, readily, in many others? Who will cheer the driver who mows down a tourist, a child, or a nurse on a D.C. street but be outraged if that same criminal behavior occurred not in the District but in Bethesda or Arlington?
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but my colleagues in the firm and I also see the damage inflicted on them and their loved ones by vehicle, truck, and motorcycle wrecks. We are all one step into an intersection from a life changing calamity that can upend our health, finances, work, and relationships, and the terrible recent increase in the nation’s road toll — at a time when the coronavirus pandemic reduced the miles most of us drive — is disturbing and unacceptable.
We may not like automated enforcement on our roads. But if devices are wrongly calibrated, in error, or misused there are ways to challenge citations in appropriate legal fashion. We’re a nation of laws and it is wrong-headed to think that each of us gets a smorgasbord of free choice, picking and choosing what statutes we comply with and which we do not.
Regional government groups need to have the tough discussions about rigorous enforcement of traffic and parking laws, including whether, as Virginia does, it is a good thing to snub automated systems and their outcomes. To simply ignore a neighbor’s challenges is unhelpful — if D.C. residents don’t like Virginia troopers and consider them unfair, they can’t ignore their traffic or parking enforcement, right?
As for the District, it needs to yet more deal with its road problems. It has far too few people, clearly not doing what they need to, to enforce traffic and parking laws, notably with fewer than a handful of workers seeking out citation-laden vehicles and immobilizing (booting) and towing them until their owners reckon with their problematic citations.
The District has tried to work with scofflaws, offering amnesty programs that seem to be petering out in their hoped-for outcomes of getting violators to fess up, pay up, and avoid similar issues and consequences later.
We have lots of work to do, individually and collectively, to slash our increasing road toll and to restore safety progress that we had and took for granted. The effort in ’22 and beyond cannot just be about road rules and their enforcement, though. We must realize that we have individual responsibilities to ourselves and everyone around us to act with shared altruism. We cannot drive while intoxicated, exhausted, distracted, or with an ignorant anger that navigates a multi-ton object flying down the street in reckless fashion.