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Highway-fine motivation should be to heighten safety, not to boost a budget

My co-worker, Rachel, is a soft-spoken young woman. With straight, light hair and an innocent smile, she’s one of the more non-threatening people you’ll meet.    
 
Recently, working a night shift at our restaurant, things were slowing down so I asked how her night went waiting tables. Things went fine, she said, but then added a little monkey wrench into the conversation: She’d been pulled over a few nights prior and was hoping to make more money to compensate for the ticket.
 
I asked her the offense, and she described that a squad car was parked along the shoulder of the freeway. She drove on by, not speeding, seatbelt fastened. But she didn’t move over a lane to the left. She didn’t know it was the law. 

When the cop fined her $130 for not giving his car this buffer zone, she was deflated. She was coming home from her best night at her new job, happy to make $100. (Perhaps she felt some consolation in knowing she wasn’t alone. As she drove away, two other cars were pulled over.)
 
That it was under these circumstances — to a person like Rachel, juxtaposed with and undoing her hard day’s work, getting caught in a police snare — makes this all the more off-putting. But even without this window dressing, the core still reveals a problem.
 
Local governments depend on citations’ money
Fines are intended to keep roads safe, but one has to continually question this intent because local governments depend on citations for budgets. 
 
Think about the implications of this: Certain government agencies would be financially worse off if everyone drove perfectly. Thus, local governments have a vested interest in you not obeying the law, that roads not be as safe as possible, or in creating laws to raise cash. This is crazy; and makes for a textbook moral hazard: a circumstance where people are rewarded for doing something wrong or have incentive not to do something good. 
 
And Rachel’s example reveals a consequence: dislike toward law enforcement. They weren’t handing out tickets to people they happened to see doing something dangerous. They manufacture the circumstances, interrupting people’s lives with pop quizzes to try to catch them flubbing up. This is distasteful and dishonest. And I have a hard time imagining the police so ardently looking for tickets if not for their institution depending on them. 
 
How our communities didn’t foresee this conflict of interest is a real head-scratcher—almost as much as the fact that we, the citizens, are now OK with it! It’s normal, this citizens v. police, cat-and-mouse game, but it’s divisive and unnecessary. Recently, a driver in Florida sued the state for his right to flash his lights at oncoming drivers, warning them of the impending police cars hidden under an overpass. In Detroit, it’s become so common for police to ticket out-of-towners that airport employees have been warning newcomers of the cops.
 
Fundraising – or keeping roads safe?
Locally, I can recall being a student at the U of M and watching officers pointing their radar guns trying to catch people speeding on the 19th Ave bridge. It’s the ideal place as there’s a gradual curve to hide behind the bridge railing, and it’s an open stretch that people feel secure going 40 mph along. 
 
Maybe the cop was there to keep the roads safe; maybe he’s there to fund-raise. The point is that it would be simple to remove the need to wonder by eliminating the moral hazard, to not have our cities, counties, or state rely on tickets and fines for government budgets. 
 
There should be a law preventing tickets and fines from being used for budgets. 
 
And this wouldn’t be as hard as you might think. Only 1 percent of the Minneapolis city budget relies on fines. The police department budget is 3 percent funded by tickets and citations. It’s common to say that during times of tighter budgets police really need this money. But this economy, then, also increases incentives to exploit citizens for citation cash!     
 
Another benefit would be that law enforcement’s primary, and ideally sole, concern would be safety on our highways — less the ever-present temptation to pull someone over for the money. Minus this distraction, room is then created to invent and implement other, more effective, solutions to unsafe driving, poor parking and the like. 
 
Trust, appreciation would increase
Trust and appreciation in our law enforcement would increase without suspicions of “fundraising.” Because despite a low percentage of police budgets covered by fines, most people recognize that this is, indeed, a big reason why cops pull people over. 
 
I know Rachel would feel better about the situation if she didn’t have to entertain the possibility that her night’s work was taken from her just to pad the police budget.
 
As an obvious, toxic root, potentially creating a lot of ugly branches, local governments should keep fines away from budgets.    

Brandon Ferdig is a writer from Minneapolis. He writes a weekly column called New Plateaus about his observations, experiences and insights. He is currently writing a book titled, “New Plateaus in China,” a compilation of human-interest stories, participation, and social commentary from the perspective of living in China.

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by rolf westgard on 11/29/2011 - 06:23 am.

    The notion of the speed trap has been with us for decades. On the other hand we can assume that the parked police car here should have had its flashers working. That really alerts the approaching car to move over. Just in front there could have been another car with the policeman outside issuing a ticket, attending an injured, etc. That’s the point of the law.
    Recall the case of Mrs Senser who didn’t yield to the pulled over car where the driver was outside filling a gas tank.

  2. Submitted by rolf westgard on 11/29/2011 - 09:16 am.

    Another law that’s often ignored by Minnesota drivers has to do with yielding to pedestrians in crosswalks. In California, that law is aggresssively enforced. Not here where drivers routinely whiz by pedestrians.
    I suggest that Rachel was fortunate with only a ticket, rather than a dead public servant.

  3. Submitted by myles spicer on 11/29/2011 - 10:26 am.

    Problem with speed traps, and the community’s reliance on them for revenue is that it again casts the police as adveraries rather than protectors and friends; and positions the local government as “them against us”. We have too much of both already. There has to be better ways to raise revenues…have citizens and the local government work together to solve budget issues…and stop pitting government against its citizens.

    In recent years we have deomonized government partially because it acts this way; and have (to some extent) legitimately cast the police as enforcers and bad guys. Both need some image polishing, and speed traps are not helpful.

  4. Submitted by rolf westgard on 11/29/2011 - 11:56 am.

    Myles, one person’s speed trap is another’s honest effort to slow traffic to safe levels. There is a reason for the law requiring you to yield to emergency vehicles. Personally, I am glad it is being enforced.
    I have had a few tickets in my 66 years of licensed driving, and I am not blaming the police for any of them. Even though I may be a non-threatening person with an “innocent smile”. Such persons often end up with the most tragic, tho unintended, accidents.

  5. Submitted by Michael Friedman on 11/29/2011 - 12:01 pm.

    A related problem is forfeiture, which not only is prone to scandal but poorly incentivizes decisions about allocation of police resources — and county attorneys are led to sniff for a cut of that funding as well. Fines also do not have proportional impact on the guilty parties, though good judges can try to take that into account.

  6. Submitted by Michael Friedman on 11/29/2011 - 12:16 pm.

    I forgot to mention that forfeiture reform is the kind of issue that legal advocates of all political viewpoints can get behind. Both the ACLU and the Institute for Justice have been advocates at the legislature to rid society of excessive government through the misuse of policing and punishment.

  7. Submitted by myles spicer on 11/30/2011 - 09:00 pm.

    Rolf
    There is a signficant difference betweent legitimate enforcement of the speed limit and traffic laws; and speed traps and cheap “entrapment” of drivers for revenue purposes. I could give you examples of both speed traps and entrapment, but do not wish to take the time. Guess you will just thave to trust me — the exist. By the way, when you go to court they give you a choice then: pay a fine on the spot and “it will not appear on your driving record” or you can contest it and…

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