D.C. Councilman Tommy Wells called the fines from the city's traffic cameras "kind of a backwards tax," as he introduced legislation Tuesday that would lower and cap many of the fines and return 50 percent of the revenue from them back into public safety expenses.

"I heard from many people that they got one or two tickets before they even realized they were getting tickets, and they were hit with between $300 to $500 worth of fines," Wells said. "For some people, that is the difference between having enough food for the month or paying their fines."

Under the Safety-Based Traffic Enforcement Act of 2012, fines for many moving violations caught on traffic cameras would max out at $50, down substantially from current fines, which can range up to $250. And the bill would move them much closer to those in neighboring Maryland, where such fines begin at $40.

Other Tuesday business
Driving: The D.C. Council passed temporary legislation that put D.C.'s reckless-driving law on par with those of other jurisdictions. The bill came after complaints from city residents who were getting their licenses suspended after receiving a speeding ticket elsewhere.
Vouchers: Emergency legislation was passed to save 17 D.C. housing vouchers from not being reissued. According to the bill's sponsor, at-large Councilman Michael Brown, the D.C. Housing Authority has let more than 60 vouchers expire over the past three years.

"The people understand the value and the safety of ticketing," said AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman John Townsend. "What they had a problem with was excessive fines out of proportion to neighboring jurisdictions and no proof whatsoever that those extreme fines change behavior at all."

The D.C. legislation comes after a task force led by Wells, who represents Ward 6, and Ward 3 Councilwoman Mary Cheh studied whether the cameras were being used more for safety or to increase city revenue. Over the past four years, revenue from automated traffic enforcement has gone up as much as 500 percent, contributing to a $23 million surge in camera ticket revenue in the 2012 fiscal year.

"We're going to try to get this back into line with best practices and policies, certainly to try to maintain the trust of our citizens, that this is not just a new way to get into their pockets," Wells said.

A hearing has been set for Nov. 5 at 11 a.m. at the John A. Wilson Building for public comment on the bill.

"The legislation is going to be controversial no matter, but what the legislation does is to underscore how volatile this issue has become," Townsend said.