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Kurt A. Gardinier Headshot

Stop Watching Us: D.C. to More Than Double Traffic Cameras

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The dreaded sight of a ticket on your windshield is never fun, but now the dread is increasingly coming to your mailbox, especially if you drive in Washington, D.C. As of July 31, drivers in the nation's capital have paid nearly $70 million in traffic camera fines this year (they paid nearly $100 million in 2012), and 2014 is looking like a stellar year for the D.C. government, as the city has announced plans to more than double the number of traffic cameras in Washington -- from around 90 to 225.

They're also expanding the kinds of infractions we'll be fined for. The cameras will no longer just be catching us driving 11 miles over the speed limit or running a red light just as it turns red -- they'll be catching us doing everything from rolling through a stop sign, blocking intersections and failing to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks. So, no mistakes allowed. Ever. You have to drive perfectly, all day, every day. And if you don't? The tickets will come to your mailbox, and good luck getting out of a ticket that has pictures and video of you breaking the law. These robot cameras can't assess a situation like humans can. Say the road is icy, and you feel that your safest bet is to roll through an intersection just as the light turns red, instead of slamming on your brakes and potentially causing an accident. Doesn't matter. Ticket's coming. We all make mistakes while driving, and we shouldn't be constantly monitored and fined every time we do.

And this system has very little to do with safety, and everything to do with the city generating millions and millions of dollars off their residents and guests. I recently spoke with my Councilwoman, Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), who said that while the government is "happy to raise the revenue" from the fines, safety is the main objective of the program.

There is convincing data showing that traffic cameras improve safety -- but there are effective alternatives that won't cost us anything. For instance, on Porter Street in Cleveland Park (between Reno and Connecticut) there's a sign that says "Signal Turns Red When Speeding." This makes me, and I assume most others, slow down, because green lights are better than red ones. It costs us nothing, but keeps us safe. So why not put up more of these devices around the city? If this wasn't about generating revenue, they would.

Or, at the very least, how about issuing one warning ticket after a new traffic camera is installed? This alerts the driver where the new camera is and would very likely make the driver change his or her driving habits in the area. If this weren't about generating revenue, they would.

And while these traffic cameras enrage D.C. residents, what about the tourists? Imagine taking a nice patriotic family vacation to our nation's capital and coming home to find your mailbox filled with tickets ($100 for driving 11 miles over the speed limit, $75 for "failure to yield right of way to a pedestrian" and $250 for "overtaking vehicle stopped at crosswalk for pedestrian"). In 2012, 18.9 million people visited the city, generating over $6 billion in revenue for the District. I would think D.C. officials would recognize that tourism is a big deal for the city, and not want to ticket visitors to death. Over time D.C. residents learn where these cameras are located, but tourists have no idea.

And what will this lead to down the road? Tickets for not using a directional light? Jaywalking cameras with face recognition? Since 2001 the D.C. government has continuously increased the number of traffic cameras in the city, the infractions they're ticketing us for, and the cost of the tickets (for the most part). And since they're more than doubling the number of cameras, it's fair to assume that will lead to more than doubling the amount of fines they collect -- so the District will likely bring in well over $200 million next year. What will this money be used for?

Councilwoman Cheh wasn't specific, but did say the money goes "in the general fund." Not to hire more teachers, fix the city's crumbling roads and bridges or get more police on our streets, but the general fund. The 13 council members can do whatever they choose with this money they've taken from us.

The increase in traffic cameras in D.C. and around the country (24 other states use them) is just one more extension of our growing surveillance state. We're constantly being monitored everywhere we go and it's very unsettling. Take my typical workday. I leave my apartment, get in my car and pass traffic cameras at numerous intersections on my one-mile drive to the subway. I park and often stop in Walgreens, where cameras watch my every move. I then go down into the Metro, where cameras watch me all the way to the platform where I wait for the train, surrounded by more cameras. I get on the train, where more cameras await. (Metro is tripling the number of surveillance cameras in all stations and parking garages and have added cameras in all rail cars.) I get off the train, where new cameras begin tracking me all the way up to the street, where I am greeted with more cameras. I then walk into my office building, where I am greeted by cameras; enter the elevator, where a camera is looking straight at me; and finally get to my desk, where cameras sit in virtually every corner (even in the kitchen).

While traffic cameras are monitoring how we drive, automatic license plate surveillance systems are monitoring where we're driving. These license plate reader systems are being used all across the country, including here in D.C.; they are mounted on police cars or on road signs and bridges, and use small, high-speed cameras to photograph thousands of license plates per minute. And this is all apparently legal in the world's oldest constitutional democracy. As the ACLU reports, "The information captured by the readers - including the license plate number, and the date, time, and location of every scan - is being collected and sometimes pooled into regional sharing systems. As a result, enormous databases of innocent motorists' location information are growing rapidly. This information is often retained for years or even indefinitely, with few or no restrictions to protect privacy rights."

And everything I've mentioned is all being done on the state and local level. The federal government has been doing some monitoring too (See: NSA). But, this is all about keeping us safe, right? I guess we should all just be grateful our government cares so much about us.

How do we make this all stop, or at the very least hit the pause button and evaluate where we've gone? I don't know, but it feels strange and un-American to be constantly surveyed. Governments at all levels: Stop watching us, please.