Politics & Policy

The Urban Bane That Is D.C. Speed Cameras

A traffic light in Washington D.C. (Joshua Roberts)
They add nothing to public safety, though quite a bit to the district’s coffers and to the disturbance of its residential neighborhoods.

I hate D.C.’s speed cameras. Hate. To paraphrase Jack Nicholson in As Good as It Gets, I use words for a living and I have no reluctance saying I hate speed cameras. It is not because I am a notorious leadfoot. I don’t speed very much, and because I know where the cameras are on my usual routes, I wouldn’t fall afoul of them much even if I were.

So why do I hate them? Let me count the ways. For starters, in D.C. they are only tangentially related to public safety. They are primarily a revenue source. D.C. raised just shy of $100 million last year from just 87 cameras — double the revenue of the preceding year. But some cameras are more lucrative than others. A camera on the 2200 block of K Street at the bottom of an underpass raked in just under $12 million last year. When it first went up, it nailed me a couple times.

But here’s the thing: That camera adds literally nothing to public safety. Its relationship to public safety is analogous to that of a prostate check for a sore throat. “Uh, Doc, my throat’s up here.”

It catches drivers at the trough of a tunnel, where pedestrians would have to shimmy down a sheer concrete wall to be in jeopardy. There is no conceivable reason a pedestrian would be down there. Also, there’s no intersection nearby. The camera is there just because it’s a clear straightaway on an otherwise congested thoroughfare. The signage for the camera is poor. D.C. just wants to use the whole fist, even when a finger would be gratuitous.

But I could live with that. Because even though it contributes nothing to public safety, at least it isn’t harmful.

You can’t say the same thing about the cameras in my neighborhood. There, they are not merely unpleasantly intrusive. In my neighborhood, the rubber-glove-clad fist of Big Brother is positively iatrogenic.

I live in a part of Northwest D.C. where there are two major roads — Loughboro and MacArthur Blvd. and, a little further away, Nebraska Avenue and Foxhall Road.  These roads were designed to carry a lot of traffic. All of the side streets were not. Many don’t even have sidewalks, and none have traffic lights. Kids walk in the road to their schools and school buses. Parents push strollers, and certain canine-loving pundits walk their dogs, in the road.

So what did D.C. do? It littered the major roads with speed cameras. The result? In order to avoid them, commuters, particularly those from Maryland and Virginia who know nothing about the neighborhood, tear through side streets to avoid them, like they were trying to escape the fallout of a dirty bomb.

What made things even worse: The driving app Waze started directing nimrods who are obsessed with shaving seconds off their commute to cut through side streets as well. They careen around all of the “Drive Like Your Kids Live Here” signs like they were traffic cones on a closed obstacle course.

I’ve tested many of these routes. They usually don’t actually save time, and when they do, the savings is rarely greater than 30 seconds to a minute. But because the algorithm takes the cameras into account, these high-speed pawns obey their iPhone or Android overlords. Indeed, sometimes the Waze route is longer because of the imperative to dodge the cameras. Meanwhile, commuters rip past stop signs, take blind curves, and come to a screeching halt when they almost hit people, cars, and kids. I have carpeted these drivers with F-bombs like the USAF over Dresden more often than I can count.

I bring this up in part because this is a source of great rage in my life and in part because one man has given voice to my rage.

And I am not alone. Read the replies to that tweet, they are simultaneously hilarious and revealing. It’s like a Bernie Goetz moment for anti-robot vigilantism and raging against the machine.

Meanwhile, they’re even better set to music.


I don’t know who he is. I don’t know his specific motivation. And while I can’t fully bring myself to endorse vandalism, if he is caught and prosecuted I will rush to his GoFundMe site to pay for his legal defense, and if I am blessed by Providence to sit on his jury I will become a spittle-spewing protagonist for jury nullification. He is my Guy Fawkes and my Turk 182, my Kuato and my Katniss Everdeen all rolled into one. Long live the resistance!

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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