DC calls them ‘scofflaws.’ And if they’re found, they’re getting towed

Much has been made in recent years about all the money owed by drivers who have racked up tickets for speeding, running red lights and other infractions caught on D.C.’s bevy of traffic cameras. And quietly over the last month, D.C. has started going after some of those drivers.

A pilot program run by the D.C. Department of Public Works, which handles impounding and towing, has the city scouring Ward 1 streets with license plate readers looking for “scofflaw” vehicles — those that have racked up at least $3,000 in unpaid fines.

“The license plate readers are able to read the license plate as the enforcement officer is going by and that tells them the person’s status,” said Charlie Willson, director of D.C.’s Vision Zero program. “So based on that then they are traveling with a tow truck that can then immediately tow that vehicle.”

Willson said it’s in the name of safety, not money.

“What we know about our folks who have more violations and outstanding fines is that correlates with risky driving,” Willson said.

City officials said data shows someone with at least one ticket for running a red light is at a two to three times greater risk to eventually be in a crash. People busted for doing 21 mph or more above the speed limit are also at an elevated risk.

“The goal is to get the risky drivers off the roadway,” Willson said.

Right now the pilot program is just in Ward 1, which was chosen not necessarily because it has the most “scofflaw” drivers in the city, but because it might have the most “scofflaw” vehicles parked on the street, as opposed to in garages or private driveways. But if the pilot program is successful, it’s likely to expand to other parts of the city.

Just because the city tows a car doesn’t mean it’ll get the money that’s owed. City leaders have acknowledged that sometimes a vehicle has more fines on it than it’s worth, and so the driver won’t claim it if it’s been impounded. In recent years the city has added a second impound lot, with a third now under consideration. By law the city has to hold a vehicle for 28 days before it’s scrapped and sold.

The District has also beefed up other efforts to collect unpaid fines by expanding the number of teams that can boot a vehicle from two to 10. Recently, more than 36 vehicles with fines that added up to around $92,000 were booted in the Georgetown area.

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John Domen

John started working at WTOP in 2016 after having grown up in Maryland listening to the station as a child. While he got his on-air start at small stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware, he's spent most of his career in the D.C. area, having been heard on several local stations before coming to WTOP.

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