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Status Report, Vol. 37, No. 8 | September 14, 2002 Subscribe

Speed cameras still favored in D.C. despite negative publicity

D.C. police operate five camera-equipped vehicles that are moved around the city. The cameras use radar to measure vehicle speeds, but unlike traditional radar, which measures the speeds of relatively isolated vehicles, these cameras can focus on specific vehicles in traffic.

Washington, D.C., has been using cameras to identify and ticket speeders since last summer, and results so far indicate the program is beneficial. Proportions of speeding vehicles have declined at locations around the city (see Status Report special issue: automated enforcement, May 4, 2002).

Even as vehicle speeds have come down, the city's camera program has attracted some bad press (a local newspaper dubbed it "frightening") and complaints from a member of the city council who says he "got caught up" by a camera. It wouldn't be surprising if reviews like these eroded public support for the camera program. But support is holding up, according to a recent Institute survey. About half (51 percent) of the D.C. residents surveyed said they favor the cameras. Thirty-six percent said they're in opposition.

Public support is important because, as Institute senior traffic engineer Richard Retting points out, "a big stumbling block to the wider use of automated enforcement is concern that people won't accept it or that there could be a backlash. This survey shows that even in a city where cameras have been somewhat controversial, there's still a good level of public support."

Prior surveys of speed camera use have found slightly higher levels of support. One conducted earlier in the Washington, D.C., area regarding the potential use of cameras found about 60 percent approval. Surveys conducted in Arizona and California towns where speed cameras were being used found about the same level of approval. However, police enforcement hadn't started, or it was minimal, when these surveys were conducted.

To be sure, support for the District of Columbia's speed cameras doesn't equal the approval found elsewhere for red light camera programs. Three-quarters or more of respondents to surveys in communities with and without red light cameras say they favor such programs (see "Public favors cameras, but legal barriers impede use," April 28, 2001). Although support for speed cameras isn't as impressive, more people in the District of Columbia favor such cameras than oppose them.

Eighty-three percent of the D.C. residents who recently were polled said they knew speed cameras were being used. Support for the cameras generally increased with the age of the respondents and was higher among people who thought speeding was a problem in the city. Residents who hadn't received tickets and didn't know anyone who had were more likely to say they favored the cameras.

While support for cameras generally was good, 36 percent of those who were polled said they didn't think speeding was a problem in the District of Columbia. Fifty-three percent of the respondents in this group said they opposed the use of cameras.

"Such responses are unfortunate because research indicates that speeding is, in fact, a problem," Retting says. "At some locations in the District, more than half of the drivers are exceeding the speed limit by at least 10 mph. City officials indicate that speed is a contributing factor in more than half of the District's traffic deaths."

D.C. police operate five camera-equipped vehicles that are moved around the city. The cameras use radar to measure vehicle speeds but, unlike traditional radar that can measure the speeds of relatively isolated vehicles, these cameras can focus on specific vehicles in traffic.

The District operates one of the few speed camera programs in the United States. In contrast, European countries and Australia rely heavily on cameras to enforce speed limits.

Do you think drivers exceeding the speed limit are a problem in D.C.?

By age of respondents
Age 18-29 30-59 60+ Total
Yes 52% 65% 81% 64%
No 48% 35% 19% 36%

Do you favor or oppose using speed cameras to enforce laws against speeding in D.C.?

By age of respondents
Age 18-29 30-59 60+ Total
Favor 44% 52% 55% 51%
Strongly 23% 31% 41% 30%
Somewhat 21% 22% 14% 20%
Oppose 48% 33% 29% 36%
Strongly 29% 24% 24% 25%
Somewhat 19% 9% 5% 11%
No opinion 9% 14% 16% 13%

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