The Nation's Pulse

Robo-Pic

Washington, D.C. has found a way to drive drivers -- and business -- away. For good.

By 1.18.06

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As reported in the Washington Post last year, D.C. has launched a new campaign to lure hip young people into the city. The new slogan, "city living, dc style!" (lower cases in the original), is part of an effort, according to one booster, to show how the District is "hip, happening, the hot place to be."

I may not be in the target demographic for the ad -- I'm 38 and the campaign is aimed at twentysomethings -- but I know that I will never be lured to live in the District. Don't get me wrong, I love the city. But after receiving five automated traffic tickets in as many months, I've decided that any city that is so obdurate or just plain dumb that it doesn't realize that the machines kill business probably can't be trusted to do things like get the trash taken away and control real crime.

Washington's ubiquitous, revenue-generating photo-radar, or what I call robo-pic, system of ticket distribution -- was set up about two years ago. The city installed unmanned cameras all over the city to snap drivers going over the speed limit; the Mayor came out and admitted that safety was only part of the rationale, the other part being revenue enhancement in a city with $300 million deficit. It's a scam that even the MVA says is not legal and has lost the support of AAA. So far, the robo-pic system has raised $20 million.

Almost $300 of that from this writer. I recently got nailed for two tickets in as many days from the same location. Without going into detail, let me just say that I was speeding -- and not by much -- because I was sick and was looking for a bathroom. But I couldn't tell the cop that, as there was no cop. The second ticket is what made me decide never to live in D.C. and to stop spending money there. Unlike most punitive measures -- say, a cop seeing you litter and giving a summons on the spot -- the D.C. automated system doesn't bust you and allow you to amend your ways. It can give you ten tickets in an hour. Then it lags behind by a few weeks, mailing a ticket almost three weeks after you were photographed. You could rack up hundreds of dollars in fines without knowing you had even incurred the first one. This isn't crime deterrence, it's gotcha.

It's also a sign of failure, a kind of giving up on the part of a municipal government -- well, our schools are awful, we're in debt, the crime rate is insane, and we have no tax base and can't even plow snow (the D.C. snow removal plan was once referred to as "the sun") -- so let's just use this thing to keep our coffers stuffed. Yet even the supposedly simple and streamlined ticket system has a way of getting messed up in D.C. -- according to one report, $17 million of the ticket revenue is the result of overcharges.

Now, it would be easy to dismiss any point I make as coming from an aggrieved party who is steamed because he got caught. The truth is the opposite: I love this city and would like to see it grow rather than contract. I was born and raised here, even if I do live in Maryland now. My relatives worked in two of the city's great institutions -- my grandfather as a player for the Washington Senators and my father as an editor at National Geographic. I like kids playing on sidewalks and don't want people to speed.

I also believe in law and order, but in every society that is not totalitarian there must be some leeway for petty offenses, or else people leave the city just as sure as they do because of crime. When I got my tickets I didn't feel like I had been recklessly endangering lives of other people and that I deserved a fine. I had the impression that the D.C. government, broke and mismanaged as always, had cooked up a scheme to bring in some quick money and nail people who have no intention of speeding. After all, the road I was on when I got photographed is long and wide and in the direction I was traveling runs downhill. Without accelerating at all momentum can easily bring you seven miles over the speed limit, which is what I was doing. It's also probably no mistake that the camera was set up on a road that runs right in front of Catholic University. Students around a campus tend to speed. Easy money, despite the fact that I've never heard of an accident on the road. Welcome to Washington, kids.

The resulting resentment, hostility, and desire never to return to the city is the result of the broken windows theory gone wild. In the broken windows theory, used by Mayor Giuliani to fight crime in New York in the 1990s, criminals grow bolder when they see trash in a neighborhood and decide to move in. Yet if the theory is overused -- say, jail time for spitting on the sidewalk -- it becomes fascistic and hurts the very people it's trying to help. The subject grows deflated, resentful and angry; rather than moving in, he or she moves out, often deciding not to come back. Columnist George F. Will once wrote about the silent understanding that used to allow citizens to function in a society. In the old days, Will wrote, everyone knew that pornography existed and that there were places in the city where you could get it. The sellers of that pornography tacitly agreed to keep their shops somewhat nondescript in respect of those in the neighborhood. The arrangement worked -- free-speechers were happy, and the more mainstream members of the town tolerated them.

A similar silent toleration existed in those lovely days before robo-pic was installed. Some people are going to go a few miles over the speed limit, the cops seemed to say. They will abuse their parking time by a few minutes. But we won't harass them for it, because by giving a little we send the signal that we're not uptight, and therefore encourage folks to come in and spend their money in the city. Who wants to risk it when simply driving into town will cost you more than dinner?

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About the Author

Mark Judge is a Washington writer and author of God and Man at Georgetown Prep, Damn Senators: My Grandfather and the Story of Washington's Only World Series, and other books.