John Townsend
Public Relations Manager, DC
O: (202) 481-6820 (ext. 4462108)
C: (202) 253-2171
jtownsend@aaamidatlantic.com

FOLLOWING AN EXPOSÉ IT OVERCHARGED MOTORISTS, DISTRICT CHANGES REVIEW PROCESS FOR RED-LIGHT CAMERA CITATIONS. TICKETS & PROFITS PLUMMET 54.3%, SPARING UNSUSPECTING MOTORISTS MORE THAN $2.2 MILLION IN OVER-CHARGES

 

WASHINGTON, D. C. (Tuesday, October 1, 2019) ––Ticketed motorists were spared more than two million dollars in overcharges on ticket fines they otherwise would have faced, as a result of changes to the District’s red-light camera ticket processing policies. Long overdue, this revamp was triggered by an exposé by AAA Mid-Atlantic and a local media consumer investigative unit. Even though many drivers overpaid for red-light camera infractions in the past few years, the District doesn’t plan to refund motorists hit with these overpayments. Under District law, traffic fines are supposed to be the same, “whether your traffic violation is captured by a photo enforcement camera or you’re pulled by over” by a police officer. That has not been the case in the District. Digging deeper, AAA Mid-Atlantic found discrepancies in fine amounts the District imposed on unsuspecting motorists for certain infractions caught by cameras at red lights.

 

From Fiscal Year 2013 through Fiscal Year 2017, the District systematically overcharged motorists millions of dollars after they were nabbed on the city’s network of photo-red cameras for RTOR (“shorthand for ‘Right Turn on Red’”) infractions, or for “No Turn on Red” violations, as AAA Mid-Atlantic ascertained. Though the fine for these violations is only $50 by District statute, unwitting motorists were routinely charged $150, AAA Mid-Atlantic found. Critics have taken to calling such tactics “ticket gouging.” The District changed its ticket review process in August 2017, after an investigation by AAA Mid-Atlantic and WJLA showed the District charged RTOR violators captured on photo-red cameras 200 percent more than the $50 ticket police officers write for the same infraction. 

 
FY2018
Red Light violations (T113)
$150
Red Light –
No right turn 
(T202)
$50
Red Light -
Failing to come to a complete stop 
(T334) -$50
Total Tickets & Revenue Collected
Tickets issued
45,594 
37 
22,032 
67,663 
Fines Generated
$6,839,100 
$1,850 
$1,100,650 
$7,941,600 
Source: MPD Red-Light Camera Ticketing Data
  

“The change in polity spared unsuspecting motorists $2,203,200 in ticket overcharges. Moreover, total red-light camera ticket fine revenue plummeted $6.8 million, or 54.3 percent, from the previous budget cycle. For the longest time, ticket fines became revenue generators with motorists paying millions more than they otherwise owed. The District kept drivers in the dark about paying fines ‘at rates higher than those allowed by city regulations.’ Adding insult to injury, even after getting caught red-handed, the city is steadfastly refusing to issue millions of dollars in refunds to motorists it wrongly fined,” said John B. Townsend II, AAA Mid-Atlantic’s Manager of Public and Government Affairs. “This has been going on for years. Motorists need a full accounting of the ticket overcharges. Yet when ticket errors and overpayments have occurred in other cities,  Cleveland Heights, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia, officials put integrity first, and issued ‘millions and millions of dollars’ in refunds. Justice demands the District to do the same for the unwary drivers it wronged.”

 

The actual number of red-light camera tickets dropped from 100,173 citations in FY 17 to 45,594 tickets in FY18, a 54.4 percent drop. Yet nearly 68,000 motorists were mailed notices of photo-red violations.

Of the 67,663 ticketed motorists caught on red-light cameras during FY18, nearly a third, or 32.6 percent, were cited for a rolling right turn on red (RTOR) violation (22,032 drivers), a common scenario, or for taking a right hand turn at a red light in an intersection with a sign stating “No Turn On Red” (just  37 drivers). In August 2017, the fine amount for right-on-red infractions were quietly re-adjusted to $50, as originally mandated by a law passed by the District Council in 2013, after a backlash over the District’s fine regime was sparked by District residents and area motorists. Mindful of this, the Council lowered certain traffic fines, and raised others, bringing the penalty for RTOR infractions closer in line with surrounding jurisdictions.

 

Of note, the policy change also set into motion a series of unforeseen results and unexpected consequences. Although the District’s red-light camera program experienced a banner year in Fiscal Year 2017, as the city issued a record number of red-light camera tickets and collected near –record photo-red revenue for its coffers, red-light camera ticket output dropped by a third, from 100,173 citations to just shy of 68,000 photo-red citations, during the following budget cycle, observes AAA Mid-Atlantic.

 

Instead of garnering $10.1 million in potential red-light camera revenue that it would have gleaned under the previous fine regime, the city’s bottom line took a big hit as it collected nearly $8 million in fine revenue. So, instead of getting slapped with $150 tickets, motorists who did not completely or safely comply with “Right Turn on Red” (RTOR) regulations (T334), or who illegally turned right at an intersection with a sign prohibiting right turns on red (T202), were assessed $50 per ticket, the correct amount for their violations, in the wake of the policy changes implemented as of August 2017, as laid down by city law.  Perhaps it is one of the major reasons red-light camera revenue dipped from $12,650,650 in FY 2017 to $5,775,775 during FY 2018, a decrease of $6,874,875 budget cycle over budget cycle. That’s a precipitous 54.3 percent decrease. It comprises the lowest photo-red revenue amount for the city’s coffers in seven years or since FY 2011.   

 
Red Light Camera Citations and Red- Light Camera Revenue  FY2007-2018
Fiscal Year
*(Source: AAA FOIA Request To DC DMV)
Red-Light Camera
Citations
Red-Light Camera Ticket Fines Paid
Fiscal Year 2007
45,798 
$4,250,382 
Fiscal Year 2008
65,250 
$6,009,071 
Fiscal Year 2009
81,937 
$7,153,622 
Fiscal Year 2010
74,342 
$7,802,022 
Fiscal Year 2011
81,680 
$7,886,875 
Fiscal Year 2012
96,223 
$12,979,637 
Fiscal Year 2013
84,300 
$13,119,310 
Fiscal Year 2014
71,739 
$11,887,991 
Fiscal Year 2015
65,648 
$10,524,325 
Fiscal Year 2016
92,886 
$11,536,566 
Fiscal Year 2017
100,173 
$12,650,650 
Fiscal Year 2018
  45,594 
$5,775,775 
Fiscal Year 2019
(thru 3/31/2019)
29,906 
                  $3,011,088 
Total
935,476 
$114,587,314 
 
From FY 2007 through the first six months of FY 19, the District has issued approximately 935,476 red-light camera tickets and garnered around $114.5 million in photo-red revenue. Even though drivers are no longer unwittingly forced to pay too much for fines, some ticketed motorists are still smarting. Many are troubled by the fact that District is not issuing refunds for their excessive payments for specific red-light violations. Caught unawares, they say they got “shafted,” to put it politely. To the chagrin of the motoring public, the Metropolitan Police Department stated, “Tickets issued before this review was put in place are still considered valid.”

What explains the noticeable drop in red-light camera tickets and in photo-red revenue during FY
2018? In November 2018, the Metropolitan Police Department issued the following clarification. “After a review of recent data, MPD reports a decrease in red-light violations and revenue since MPD modified its policy in August 2017. The attributing reasons for these reductions includes the new unique categorizations of red-light violations and right-on-red violations and the presence of construction zones at camera locations.”
As an outcome of the exposé, the Director of the District Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) announced, in consultation with the Metropolitan Police Department (MPDC) overhauled the District’s red-light camera ticket review process. “This means,” explains the Metropolitan Police Department, “tickets that are issued by a red light camera are now reviewed and two separate citations are considered – passing a red light or right turn on red without stopping.”

Here is the upshot. The volte-face, or reversal, in ticketing policy was put into place on the cusp of FY 18. Without it, it is likely 22,069 motorists would have unwittingly forked over an extra $2,206,900 in ticket overcharges, or fine overpayments, for an average of $100 per ticket, as was the plight of motorists previously, notes AAA Mid-Atlantic. The correct fine is $50, as it has been since 2013, as unsuspecting motorists are learning the hard way. Referring to both the Metropolitan Police Department (MPDC) and the District Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), skeptics and cynics alike wonder “Did the District know this all along?” Civilian employees in the MPDC’s photo enforcement unit and reviewers with the MPDC’s private sector contractor review time-stamped images or photographs, video clips, and other evidence to determine the accuracy of a citation. Then a MPD sworn officer approves, or rejects, the ticket before it is mailed.

Now the law will become the final arbiter. Currently, under District law [§ 2103.7], the fine for failing to come to a complete stop before turning is just $50, as is the “No Turn on Red” fine [§ 4013]. In fact, the fine for right turn violations was halved from $100 to $50 in the Safety-Based Traffic Enforcement Amendment Act of 2012. Plus, under DC Municipal Regulations (Rule: 18-2600) the civil fines for motor vehicle moving infractions are the same whether the violations are captured by automated photo enforcement or by a police officer. “Ay, there’s the rub.” As further proof, the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) once posted the following on its red light camera enforcement website: “The fines for traffic violations captured by automated photo enforcement are exactly the same as the fines for violations issued by a police officer.”

So how did the city routinely overcharge motorists two times too much on millions of red-light camera tickets since 2013? Like officials in other cities, the District has not explained how the ticketing error “went undetected for so long.” Nothing hurts more than paying too much for traffic and parking ticket fines and feeling city hall hoodwinked or took advantage of you, notes AAA. However, getting wrongly ticketed is more common than most drivers think. Just ask suburban drivers in Chicago, motorists in “the motor city,” Detroit, and the poor drivers who were legally parked in New York City. At least they were promised refunds in the “Big Apple.”

“Right this wrong,” motorists say. Drivers improperly fined for RTOR trespasses in the District before FY 2018 are out of luck and out of a hundred dollars per ticket. Following the exposé, District officials put into place a fail-safe requiring ticket examiners to take a closer look at every red-light camera ticket and to properly assess the mandated fine amount. City officials are also pledging to stop the practice of overcharging motorists millions of dollars for red-light camera tickets, if the citations were generated by Right Turn On Red (RTOR) infractions. But the victory enjoyed by motorists hit with ticket overpayment charges may be short-lived. In January 2019, the fine jumped from $50 to $100 in the city’s “Vision Zero Rulemaking Approval Resolution of 2018 (PR22-1006).” As always, the District government “giveth and it “taketh away.”

  

 

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