Red light cameras in the district are raking in millions of dollars, even when drivers don't run a red light. The city has 50 cameras at intersections across DC. Each ticket is $150. One camera at New York Avenue and Fourth Street Northwest caught Barbara Herbert's car going through the intersection, but it's not the way it looks. "I did nothing wrong," she told FOX 5.
She showed FOX 5 the ticket that came in the mail. None of the three pictures shows her actually running a red light. In one, her car is in the left turn lane, stopped. The light is red. But she switched lanes and drove straight through the intersection. A second picture in fact shows her car in the middle of the intersection, going straight and the light is green. She was guilty of doing what many drivers do. "I was in the wrong lane. I got in the correct lane to go straight ahead. I'm thinking 'if I had the light to go straight ahead, I should not have gotten this ticket,'" Herbert said.
She thought anyone looking at the ticket could figure out what happened, case closed and ticket dismissed. She was wrong. "I think that's what caught me in shock. You know how you look at it, and then you look at it again? $150 for being in the right. I get punished with a $150 ticket?" she questioned.
AAA Mid-Atlantic sent a letter to Chief Cathy Lanier with DC's Metropolitan Police Department raising concerns about the red light violations at this particular intersection. Under DC law, all traffic camera violations must be verified by an officer before a ticket is issued. "If they see that a violation did not occur then they should toss the violation and void the ticket and never issued the ticket in the first place," said John Townsend, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic.
Both DMV which handles the appeals and MPD stand by the ticket issued to Herbert. While DMV declined a request for an interview, it reviewed the ticket and in an email to FOX 5 said "Ms. Herbert did not change lanes before she reached the stop line in the left turning lane. Therefore MPD issued her a ticket for passing through the red light." Baloney said AAA. "This ticket should have never been issued and yet they uphold the ticket and that's wrong," according to Townsend.
In response, Gwendolyn Crump, a police spokesperson provided a statement to FOX 5 explaining that "This intersection only gets these violations when drivers are in one of the left-turn lanes with a red light and they go straight in one of the left-turn only lanes. In this case they are disobeying the traffic signal for their lane." If the red light camera sensors are triggered, Crump says drivers are changing lanes at the last minute to go straight and crossing a solid white line, which is a traffic violation.
Drivers may contest a ticket during a walk in hearing. But that often requires losing a day's work that many can't afford. They can request traffic adjudication online or by mail, but DMV says the backlog is about nine months. "They drag it out as long as they can. I think they are torturing you hoping you say enough is enough," said Herbert. She didn't have time for the hassle so she paid the ticket rather than fight it.
AAA says the process is so burdensome, that it puts drivers at a disadvantage. "They have so many cases that they have such a backlog of cases and not enough hearing officers so they're just rubber stamping these tickets," claimed Townsend.
Drivers who contest a ticket don't have to pay unless they lose the case. After that, the only option left is to ask an appeals board to overturn the decision. The ticket must be paid, along with penalties and a fee. If the appeals board reverses the original ruling, the money will be refunded. What few people realize though, is that drivers only have three defenses. Doing nothing wrong is not one of them.
According to DMV drivers can only get a red light camera ticket dismissed if : 1) the vehicle or license plates were reported stolen 2) the vehicle was part of a funeral procession and 3) the driver was yielding to an emergency vehicle. None of these things applied to Herbert's case. "The rules are stacked against them," said Townsend. "The system is designed to uphold the ticket because it's about the revenue."
DMV and police deny the cameras are cash driven. But a look at the numbers shows as tickets and revenue began to drop, the price of the fines jumped. The first red light cameras were installed in 1999. After several years, the number of tickets issued by red light cameras fell to 63,837 in 2007 with revenue of $4.2 million. Then two years ago, the fine doubled from $75 to the current $150. Improved technology also allowed the city to ticket for a multitude of red light violations, such as stopping in a crosswalk or turning right on red without making a complete stop. According to the most recent numbers the city last year issued 91,550 red light camera tickets and collected $12.9 million in fines. The numbers Townsend says show, "This is not about traffic safety, as about profit taking and profit making."
Herbert wishes now she had contested the ticket, but even then she's not sure she would have won. "I would like to have my 150-dollars back," she said with a laugh, knowing that won't happen. The system to her is a joke. Herbert works in DC, but she won't let the city get another dime of her money. "My job offers me free parking but I refused to park or drive in DC," she now says. Because in DC she learned the hard way you don't have to run a red light to get a ticket.