The Blog

Inside the District's Red Lights

Red-light cameras are all over Washington--and coming to a city near you. The science behind them is bad and the police are using them to make money, not save lives. It's much worse than you thought. Part 1 in a series.

11:00 PM, Mar 31, 2002 • By MATT LABASH
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Editor's Note: One of my colleagues jokes that the five deadliest words in journalism are "Part 1 in a series." Well, not this time. This week we'll be featuring Matt Labash's investigate report on red light cameras and even though it's a series, you won't want to miss it.

-JVL

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5

OVER THE LAST DECADE, the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department has become a joke even sadder than the city's man-eating potholes or crack-smoking mayors. Various reports have them losing seven percent of their police cars, failing to close one-third of their homicide investigations, and towing legally parked cars, then failing to tell citizens the whereabouts of their vehicles. But according to the department's propagandists, if D.C. residents have a "principal public safety" concern--a concern greater than arson, auto theft, robbery, sexual assault, and homicide, all of which have risen since 1999--it is traffic safety. And if there is any traffic safety concern that concerns D.C. residents most--more than, say, drunk driving--it is speeding and red-light running. And here, the citizens are in luck. Because the D.C. police are on the case. Sort of. Actually, their automated enforcement technology is on the case.

To those not familiar with automated enforcement technology, give it time--you will be. Not only has this technology, used in Europe for decades, arrived in this country, but it is reaping millions of dollars in revenue for municipalities in the baldest cash grab by cities since they sued gun manufacturers for making guns that shoot people. As their respective names suggest, red-light cameras and photo radar are designed to photograph motorists who enter intersections after the light turns red or who speed above a certain threshold.

While systems vary according to municipality and contractor, motorists can expect to receive a photo of themselves committing the infraction, which is printed on a traffic citation they receive in the mail. Fines range from $30 for driving up to 10 mph over the speed limit in the District, to $271 for running a red light in California. In some states, license points are assessed, making automated enforcement the gift that keeps on giving in the form of higher insurance premiums.

The cities, naturally, are wary of being called greedheads. In D.C., which has most enthusiastically embraced the technology, with its 39 red-light cameras and 6 photo radar units, champions like Police Chief Charles Ramsey have said, "It isn't about revenue making. It's about saving lives." To prove it, the department's website displays gauzy pictures of children. When anybody suggests otherwise, Ramsey quickly returns fire. After the Washington Times denounced the use of photo radar as a Gestapo tactic, Ramsey wrote a spleen-venting letter to the editor, informing the paper that he sensitizes his officers by taking them to the Holocaust Museum.

To measure Ramsey's claim that the technology isn't about generating revenue--despite the District's collecting $15,569,721 in fines after two and a half years of red light camera use--I go on a ride-along, or rather, a sit-along, with D.C. police. On a muggy August morning, during the sleepy off-time just after rush hour, I lounge in an unmarked Crown Victoria in Northeast D.C. with Sgt. James McCoy and Officer D.J. Cephas. The car is one of five mobile photo radar units currently sweeping the city, along with one stationary unmanned unit. While red-light cameras are unmanned, permanently posted like all-seeing birdhouses at intersections, photo radar can either be shuttled around in police cars or stationed solo, without human supervision. (The District has promised their red-light cameras will also double as photo radar units, meaning motorists will eventually be dinged for clearing an intersection too fast, or for not clearing it fast enough.)

The space where the vehicle's shotgun seat used to be is now occupied by a giant T-bar bolted to the floor, on which is mounted a Gatso Radar 24 camera control unit, a data memory card, and all manner of technical doodads. With all their Doppler radar talk, the officers sound like meteorologists with guns. But their police car is not really a police car in any conventional sense. "It doesn't have any police equipment," explains McCoy, "no siren, no police radio."