While the nation languishes
Issue #126 • November/December, 2010
Traffic tickets are a multi-billion industry. They have virtually nothing to do with highway safety, but they have everything to do with money.
When you begin to grasp the full magnitude of the public and private interests that depend on ripping off motorists through traffic tickets, you begin to understand why this unethical system continues to expand every year.
No one knows how many traffic tickets are actually issued. Many local units of government deliberately hide this information so they don’t have to split their traffic ticket revenue with the state. Not including parking tickets, we can estimate that somewhere between 25 and 50 million traffic tickets are issued each year. Assuming an average ticket cost of $150, the total up front profit from tickets ranges from 3.75 to 7.5 billion dollars.
If just half of these tickets result in insurance surcharges (typically at least $300 over a period of three years), you can add another 3.75 to 7.5 billion dollars in profit for insurance companies. This is why insurance companies “care” so much about traffic “safety” programs and are willing to donate millions of dollars worth of radar and laser guns to the police. For them, it’s simple: more tickets equal more money!
Realistically, there is no connection between receiving an occasional traffic ticket and the likelihood of being in an accident. So, there is no justification for charging a person more for auto insurance because they were convicted for a random traffic violation. The purpose of insurance is to cover unusual risk. The act of exceeding an unreasonably low limit is hardly an “unusual risk.” That means speeding ticket surcharges are pure profit for the insurance industry.
In total, we’re talking about 7.5 to 15 billion dollars annually from tickets for government agencies and insurance companies. That’s more money than several states take in from all taxes! Worse still, that total doesn’t even include the money that “traffic schools,” attorneys, radar-detector manufacturers, and scanner producers make.
To keep the money coming in, those that benefit from traffic ticket revenue have to do several things:
1. Pass enough laws so that anybody can be stopped at any time and be given a ticket for a traffic violation. Trivial or concocted traffic law violations are also frequently used as an excuse to stop, detain, and search persons for whom the police have no other legitimate reason to do so.
2. Blow out of proportion the effects of various traffic violations. They constantly talk about “carnage” on our roads, despite the fact that we have the lowest level of traffic fatalities in history.
3. Maintain a public relations campaign that claims traffic tickets are only given to bad drivers, and that these drivers should pay for the cost of enforcement. This is how you make it appear logical that the police and courts are funded through traffic ticket receipts.
4. Keep the ticket prices below the pain threshold that would compel motorists to aggressively contest traffic citations in court. They know that if fines got too high, motorist would fight their tickets, and trials eat up all the profit.
5. Remove as many due process protections for traffic law offenders as is politically possible. This not only further discourages people from contesting their tickets, but it also ensures that those that do will have a much more difficult time defending themselves.
The police enforce laws that result in direct benefits to police agencies and personnel. Judges hear cases in which a “guilty” verdict would have tangible financially rewards for the court and courthouse personnel. No other class of “crime” is as profitable for state and local governments as is that of traffic tickets. Traffic courts cannot be fair and unbiased when their financial welfare depends on traffic fines. Additionally, local governments encourage traffic enforcement practices that rip off travelers to support local government services and to reward government employees. Yet these hypocrisies go largely unnoticed.
A few simple changes can radically alter this unjust system:
1. No court or police department should directly benefit from the collection of traffic fines.
2. No police department should be permitted to rate its officers based on how many tickets they write.
3. No local government should retain traffic fines. The money collected in local courts should be transferred to the state and returned via a local aid formula based on population.
Until these changes are made, you should forget the general notion that traffic tickets are fair and traffic courts are just. The entire system focuses on maximizing income. That’s why most of the people who seriously contest a traffic ticket either win or are offered a good plea bargain. They don’t want anyone “making waves” that would cost them money. That’s yet another good reason why you should fight your traffic ticket!
James J. Baxter is president of the National Motorists Association (NMA, 402 W. 2nd St., Waunakee, WI 53597, (608) 849-6000, firstname.lastname@example.org)