WASHINGTON, D.C. — The District of Columbia is notorious for its use of speed cameras.
In fact, in the time it takes to read this article, more than 120 people will get tickets, some as high as $800.
And some deserve it.
But in certain parts of the city there's evidence the cameras are less about safety and more about making millions.
“It's nothing but a speed trap,” said John Townsend of AAA Mid Atlantic.
The speed camera he’s referring to is on DC’s I-295 and is one of the District's most productive and controversial. It’s generated more than $26 million in just two and a half years. This camera charges premium penalties in a work-zone where there's often no evidence of work, raising serious questions about the District's motives.
“There’s always the suspicion that even if you say this is a work zone and it’s done for traffic safety, that an underlying reason for all of this is the revenue,” said Townsend.
“I thought it was a reasonable speed for the freeway," Lidia Rosas said as she showed me her $300 fine for going 59 mph. A speed that normally wouldn't trigger a ticket.
But in May, the District lowered the speed to 40 mph and doubled the fines, making it a work-zone 24/7.
But where’s the work? Since August 2019, the ABC7 I-Team repeatedly drove the stretch of highway containing the speed camera and looked for signs of a work zone. Every time, no cones, no equipment, no work.
So, we started asking questions about sign placement, disputed tickets, the law that would allow for 24/7 work zone fines where there’s no work, the amount of revenue generated, and maintenance records for the camera.
Nearly four months and four sets of data later and we still don't have the full picture because the numbers don't match and most of our questions have not been answered.
For example: In July, the DMV says the camera issued 24,000 tickets, but Metro Police has a record of only 10,000.
“They do not want you to know that the speed limit is dropped to 40 miles an hour,” said retired DC Fire Lieutenant, Stephen Sandy. Sandy got a $200 ticket for going 53 mph in what’s ordinarily a 50 mph zone.
“Any place else in the country the speed limit would be 55. But to drop it down to 40 is no other reason than revenue,” said Sandy.
He says if DC really wanted motorists to slow down, they’d make their intentions obvious.
“Not a cone. Not a guy standing right there with a shovel. Nothing that would alert you. And there is absolutely nothing that would alert you before the speed cam,” said Sandy.
He’s right. The work zone sign, so small that it could be obscured by a passing truck, is posted where there is no construction.
And nearly nine seconds beyond that sign, is the speed camera.
‘Everything that can be wrong in an automated speed camera program is being done in the District of Columbia,” said Townsend.
DC’s Department of Transportation insists it's all about the safety of motorists and workers. Townsend and AAA challenge the notion.
“In a nearby jurisdiction, Maryland, they don’t necessarily drop the speed limit in work zones, especially for long term work zones,” said Townsend.
We looked at the numbers.
In Maryland, the speed camera on I-495 near Suitland Parkway – a much larger construction zone that Townsend says sees nearly 200,000 cars a day – ticketed about 4,000 motorists in July.
According to the DMV, the speed camera in DC - with about half the traffic - issued 24,000 tickets in the same month.
Townsend says the Maryland numbers prove the point: Signs adequately warn drivers and they slow down - as evidenced by a 75% drop in tickets between July 2017 and July of 2019 for Maryland’s speed camera on the 495.
In DC, Townsend says the opposite is happening. “We suspect that this is all designed to increase the number of tickets and to produce millions of dollars in revenue in the name of traffic safety.”
Recently, DC shifted authority over the cameras from Metro Police to DDOT. Townsend says this will make things worse.
‘When it was being controlled by law enforcement people could put up with some of the excesses because they trusted the police department,” said Townsend. “They don’t have trust in D-DOT, they don’t have any trust and they shouldn’t have any trust in the private sector vendor who makes a profit from these tickets.”
We asked the Metro Police Department to sit down with us for this story. They declined.
As for Lidia, she’s fighting the tickets and wants the District to realize that these fines put average people at risk.
“As a social worker, I work with a lot of low-income people,” said Rosas. “I work with people who make minimum wage and for them, that would set them back. And it could be the difference between food on your table or childcare for your child and going to work. It’s just unacceptable for the government to really look for its citizens to pay that fee.”
A recent study by the Federal Reserve said the average American could not afford an unexpected expense of $400 or more – and in at least one set of data we’ve received from MPD there are about 14,000 unexpected $400 fines out there to be paid.
DC’s camera on the I-295 is just one speed camera out of dozens in the District that in 2018 alone they raked-in more than $100 million.