Very early Wednesday morning, two young men from Arlington, Virginia, called a Lyft to take them home after a night on the town in Washington, D.C. Jonathan Cabrera Mendez and Olvin Torres Velasquez climbed into a Honda sedan driven by Mohamed Kamara, a 42-year-old Sierra Leonean man living in suburban Maryland. The car headed south on D.C.’s winding Rock Creek Parkway.
Soon, all three of them were dead, after their car crashed with a Lexus SUV that was fleeing a traffic stop. The SUV’s driver and passenger survived. A neighbor told reporters that the crash, around 1:45 in the morning, sounded “like a building being demolished.”
It did not take long for reporters to learn the SUV’s checkered history:
While the D.C. police have not officially announced who was at fault for the crash, only one of the drivers was allegedly fleeing the police. And according to the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles website, only one of the cars—the SUV—had 44 outstanding traffic tickets, totaling $12,300. Forty-three of those infractions were for speeding. One was for running a red light. All 44 infractions occurred during the past 10 months. For nearly a year, this car was being operated by a driver on a rampage.
You’ve surely encountered a driver like this, someone who drives so aggressively and so unsafely that they scare the shit out of you. Maybe it even happens multiple times. You just know that driver is scaring the shit out of people all over town, demonstrating as much disregard for everyone else’s safety as they just showed for yours. This Lexus was driven by one of those rampaging drivers. This person spent 10 months tearing through the city like a maniac, accumulating, for example, 10 tickets in the month of February alone. This driver and their car were a ticking time bomb, and the bomb weighs 4,000 pounds and is designed to kill other people in collisions. The city knew it. So why on earth was this driver still on the road?
Washington, D.C.’s speed cameras are terrific at generating revenue—$87 million the past fiscal year. And studies nationwide show that the very existence of traffic cameras makes roads safer; in Chicago, for example, it’s estimated that traffic cameras averted 204 crashes over a three-year period. But in D.C., as in many cities, the tangled bureaucracy that operates traffic cameras is not very good at using that data to get rampaging drivers out of their cars. As local reporter Martin Austermuhle points out, three separate agencies are involved with the city’s traffic cameras: the Department of Transportation manages the devices, DMV handles fines, and Department of Public Works employees are the ones tasked with booting and towing cars with outstanding tickets. (As of 2021, there were four such employees.) And because traffic cameras don’t capture faces, only license plates, penalties are not levied on drivers’ licenses for even the most egregious camera-caught behavior—only on the cars themselves.
As in many U.S. cities, Washington, D.C.’s “Vision Zero” program to eliminate road fatalities is an abject failure. Since the program’s launch in 2015, traffic deaths in the city have gone up; Vision Zero has been chronically underfunded, understaffed, and ignored, according to a report released this week by the city’s auditor. To come anywhere near success on an ambitious program like this would require major investments in infrastructure—for instance, redesigning high-speed roads like Rock Creek Parkway. It would require investments in staffing for the teams that, for instance, boot the cars of scofflaws.
But it would also require acknowledging an obvious fact: It should be the city’s top priority to get rampaging drivers off the roads, quickly. You have the data to identify cars that, for some reason, are being driven wildly unsafely, month after month. Indeed, the city government “think tank,” the Lab, is instituting a pilot program to identify the owners of those cars and … uh … send them “customized messages, which may include information about their previous violations and predicted risk of a fatal crash.”
May I humbly suggest that that is not enough. The thing you should do when your data shows that a car is on the rampage is go get that car! Send a police officer and a DPW employee to the car’s registered address and boot that fucker.
The debate around traffic cameras and traffic enforcement often circles the question of whether traffic fines are predatory, and whether they unfairly target low-income drivers and drivers of color. They surely are and they surely do. But no one can seriously argue that any driver is being unfairly targeted by 44 tickets in 10 months. There’s an obvious difference between an ordinary citizen whose life should not be ruined over a couple of tickets, and a rampaging driver racking up scores of speeding tickets, each one of which represents a moment that driver could have killed someone. You know who’s being targeted when you don’t get that car off the road? All the rest of us, the walkers and cyclists and, yes, other drivers and passengers, the ones just trying to live our lives without being flattened.
Washington isn’t the only city that has a problem with rampaging drivers who go unchecked. A Wall Street Journal study of New York City traffic-camera data revealed that in a 19-month period between 2016 and 2018, “more than 19,000 license plates on passenger vehicles racked up eight or more violations for running red lights, speeding in school zones, or a combination of the two.” And many studies show that the kinds of drivers who commit multiple violations are responsible for more than their fair share of dangerous crashes. For example, in Louisiana, 34 percent of crashes are caused by repeat crash-prone drivers—who make up only 5 percent of the drivers in the state.
Let’s try a thought experiment. Let’s say that 10 months ago, a madman started roaming the roadways of Washington, D.C., shooting a machine gun indiscriminately. All over the city, people have had frightening encounters with this active shooter. Indeed, the city’s law-enforcement cameras have captured 44 individual instances of the guy firing off his gun on different roads around the city. It’s a miracle he hasn’t injured anyone yet, you might say. It’s a miracle no one is dead!
And if the city’s government knew who that guy was, and where he kept his machine gun, would you want the city to send him a customized message warning him of the risk of a future fatal shooting? No! You’d want the city to go get that guy! Get him to stop shooting his stupid machine gun in our streets!
Think of that Lexus SUV as the gun, and the driver as the shooter. That person’s been putting the lives of every citizen at risk for nearly a year. Those 44 violations should have tipped someone off that danger was stalking the streets. But it never did—just the latest gruesome way in which society contorts itself to accommodate cars. Early Wednesday morning, the driver, and his gun, finally hit their targets.