Traffic Enforcement: Revenue or Safety?




Here is a blog I posted about 2 years ago.  There is a lot of misinformation about this topic and I am frequently asked about it.  So I thought I’d post it again.


Earlier this week I spent some time responding to a driver who was upset that he received a ticket from us at Harmon and M24.  The ticket was for disobeying the traffic signal (running a red light) and he felt that he had no options once the light turned yellow since he did not know when the light was turning red and therefore how much time he had to get through the intersection.  He included a magazine article where the writer was arguing that traffic tickets are about increasing revenues to support police.  As I was writing the response I was also thinking about the double funeral I am attending this weekend for an elderly couple killed in a traffic crash in Macomb County.  They were the parents of my sister-in-law.  Traffic safety is important and it can be personal for many of us.

Let me say that for me first and foremost:  TRAFFIC ENFORCEMENT IS ABOUT TRAFFIC SAFETY.

Here in Auburn Hills, less than 2% of our police department budget is derived from fines – which includes traffic and parking tickets and other kinds of fines like drunk driving fines.  I know that the conventional wisdom says that traffic enforcement is about generating revenues for cities.  In fact, tickets do generate revenue but not just for cities or police departments but for many different entities. In 1999 the House Fiscal Agency of the Michigan House of Representatives issued a report on what traffic ticket fines are used for.  I know that was more than 10 years ago but very little has changed and there may be a bit more. Pages 4 and 5 of the report show flow charts that give a great view of how ticket revenues are broken down.  Auburn Hills is in the 52nd District Court and as a result does not fund a local court.   We do write most violations under local ordinance.

If I seem a little defensive, I wouldn’t be alone.  Police have grown highly sensitive because it is our officers who feel the wrath of the public as they are trying to improve traffic safety.  Police have no input on traffic fines or costs.  I think we can agree that fines and costs have grown very large and work against traffic safety and our goal of securing improved driver compliance with the laws.

Compounding the situation are the economics we’ve built our system on.  Drivers who do not respond to a ticket with a request for a hearing or a responsible plea, have their licenses automatically suspended.  If the license is suspended they cannot drive to work and if they do drive they trigger further penalties including physical arrest for driving while license is suspended.  In these economic times, some people have to choose between paying $185 for a stop sign violation or feeding their family.  It is a problematic system made worse by these ticket assessments and driver responsibility fees (fortunately those will be going away soon).  Once a person gets into the system it is extremely difficult to get out.

We believe in the 3 E’s of traffic safety:

Engineering – follow highway engineering best practices in the construction and management of the roadway system and where crashes are frequent, analyze the causal factors and take steps to change the engineering aspects of the location to make improvement.  For example, put up a traffic signal, remove one, raise a speed limit (yes, it happens), lower a speed limit, improve a sight distance are examples. By the way, it isn’t safer to slow traffic by installing more stop locations–most of us just speed more between signs and ultimately begin to ignore improperly placed signs.

Education – educate the public about traffic safety in general (seat belts, child restraints) and in specific about causal violations, knowledge of enforcement locations.  We publish our enforcement locations and targeted enforcement activities. We want you to know because we want you to improve your driving and wear your seat belt.

Enforcement – our last step is to conduct enforcement in targeted and specific ways on the causal factors that contribute to crashes

We take these steps when we review our data from the crash reports and when we receive a complaint from a resident, business or driver about what they believe maybe an unsafe location.

I know we all have mixed feelings about traffic enforcement–we want police to ticket that person who just cut us off and we want them to cite the parent who fails to put their child in  a proper child restraint and the person whose excessive speed creates a dangerous situation.  But I know that we all want that to be the other guy….not ourselves.

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I'm the Chief of Police for the Auburn Hills Police Department.