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BILLER: The dirty little secret about holiday traffic ticketing

Blitzing speeders is more about revenue than saving lives on the hightway

- - Wednesday, July 3, 2013

One of the most cherished traditions of the American family is the summer vacation. Packing up the car and heading cross-country for a weeklong camping trip, a visit with those distant cousins or an extended stay near a popular theme park is generally the recipe for a refreshing break from the dog days of summer. Little do most moms and dads know that they are targeted once they pull the family car out onto the highway.

The exorbitant cost of feeding the family on the road, the budget-breaking cost of those water parks and the cost per gallon of gas certainly will get their attention. What vacationers need to be particularly wary of, though, are traffic-enforcement campaigns held routinely across the country that are designed to ensnare drivers and lift cash from their wallets.

Catching drivers for speeding and other traffic infractions is big business, netting an estimated $5 billion per year in the United States. State and local governments share the pie. At a time when both are searching for any means possible to fill budget gaps, traffic-ticket revenue fits the bill quite nicely.

The feds are very generous with taxpayer money in this effort, doling out grants for "selective enforcement" in the name of highway safety. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration awarded $773 million to the states in 2011 to conduct ticket blitzes for a variety of reasons, but mostly speeding. That money was used primarily to pay overtime for police to man speed traps and checkpoints. Year after year, state and local police publicize the number of tickets issued during these campaigns, but when pressed, avoid citing highway accident or fatality rates that haven't improved. The process encourages ticket quotas, not improved highway safety.

Why is handing out tickets such a prospering business in a difficult economy? After all, if handing out tickets resulted in safer driving conditions, wouldn't there be a reduced need for law enforcement to patrol the roads as time goes on? The answer is in two parts. First, the game is rigged. (More on that in a bit.) Second, very few motorists — probably less than 5 percent — challenge the system. Getting a ticket is embarrassing and stressful; it's best to pay and forget about it. Many ticket blitzes are held on interstate roads, where the likelihood of an out-of-state driver returning to fight a citation is slim.

Many readers are already thinking, "Well, if you don't want a ticket, don't break the law." It's just about time to get back to the "rigged game" assertion, but first let's delve into a bedrock principle of traffic engineering, one that has been largely ignored from the time that man began traveling by motorized vehicle: The risk of crash involvement on our highways is speed-related, but primarily to the extent that cars, trucks, motorcycles and buses are moving at different speeds relative to each other.

In other words, it isn't so much the absolute speed of traffic that causes accidents; it's the drivers who aren't keeping up with traffic flow, causing more braking and accelerating, lane-changing, congestion and frustration among fellow drivers.

David Solomon, a researcher with the U.S. Department of Commerce, spent several years collecting data on the risk factors that cause highway accidents. In a seminal paper published in 1964 — yes, almost 50 years ago — Solomon found that the least risk of crash involvement occurred with vehicles moving near the average speed of traffic. He documented the safest speed to be about 5 mph faster than traffic flow. Conversely, Solomon's data showed the odds of being involved in a highway accident rose dramatically as vehicle speed dropped below the average for surrounding traffic. The famous "Solomon Curve," illustrated in the accompanying graph, has never been substantively refuted in the intervening years. The nature of driver behavior hasn't changed over time.

Last year, researchers with the Transportation Research Board reported that several speed limits around the country were posted 5 to 10 mph below that of free-flowing traffic in those areas. Artificially low speed limits do not control the natural speed of traffic and, as we learned from Solomon's work, put drivers at those speed limits at greater risk of accident.

Thus, the rigged game: The majority of the tens of thousands of citations handed out annually during federally funded ticket blitzes are given to drivers safely navigating with the flow of traffic, despite speed limits posted too low. Even casinos don't have better gambling odds; law enforcement can virtually ticket anyone for speeding in areas where the posted limits bear no resemblance to reality.

Law enforcement agencies should forgo federal grants and use some of the revenue collected during past ticket blitzes to conduct traffic studies that will help establish posted speed limits that are in concert with safe driving habits. Our highways will be safer and the summer-driving vacation will be more enjoyable for all concerned.

Gary Biller is president of the National Motorists Association.