Many ways to spell “speed trap”

Every five minutes a Massachusetts driver gets an undeserved speeding ticket. Every hour a Massachusetts driver gets a federally-funded speeding ticket.

Your state, like mine, gets federal funding to run speed traps. Every year the state bureaucracy generates a highway safety grant proposal and status report and sends it to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. I read Massachusetts’ 2018 plan to see how the sausage is made.

It’s funny how no matter what the problem speeding tickets are the answer.

You hear a lot about distracted driving. You may have heard it causes some large fraction of accidents these days. What is “distracted driving”?

They want you to think it means using a phone. But, according to Massachusetts highway safety officials, “reported cellphone-related fatal crashes accounted for only 9% of the 235 reported distracted driving fatal crashes [from 2011 to 2015].” There’s a table of types of distracted driving reported in fatal crashes. The top row is “distraction/inattention/careless.” The cell phone doesn’t make an appearance until the seventh row. “While dialing cellular phone” ties for 10th with “Adjusting audio/climate controls” at less than one fatal crash per year for each.

“Distracted driving” crashes are themselves a minority of all fatal crashes. So 98% of fatalities have no known connection to cell phone use.

When you hear about “distracted driving” don’t think about cell phones or text messages. Think about people not keeping their minds on driving. That is a real problem and not one you can ticket your way out of. As long as the money keeps coming they’re going to try anyway.

Having noted that cell phone use is reported in 9% of distracted driving fatalities, Massachusetts proposes to reduce distracted driving fatalities by 10% with federal grants. If anybody paid attention to these proposals it should have been flagged as nonsensical. A perfectly effective ban on cell phone use in the car would not be expected to lead to a 10% improvement.

The proposal explains what enforcement money is really going for. Distracted driving is said to be associated with “inappropriate speeds.” Police are asked to pay special attention to inappropriate speeds when on distracted driving patrol.

In other words, “distracted driving” enforcement means speed traps. In 2018 only one third of tickets funded by distracted driving grants were for device use. (The rate used to be closer to one half, possibly due to West Bridgewater’s crackdown on texting while stopped.)

In the rhyming slogan category, “drive sober or get pulled over” only generated 44 OUI arrests in 6,721 hours of patrolling and 17,829 traffic stops. There were 100 times as many speeding tickets and warnings as violations they were supposed to be targeting.

The other slogan “click it or ticket” generated 2,123 on-target tickets in 5,172 hours of patrolling. And more than twice as many speeding tickets or warnings. NHTSA thinks laser guns can be used to enforce seat belt laws.

Sobriety checkpoints generated five times as many speeding tickets as OUI arrests. Don’t think all those people sped through roadblocks. When police didn’t have enough officers to fully man a checkpoint they used the grant money to run speed traps.

There’s a lot more. Here are some numbers you can take home to think about.

In 2016 Massachusetts police wrote 166,423 speeding tickets. That’s one per three minutes, and most of them have nothing to do with safety. That’s over $10 million per year taken from drivers.

Federally-funded speeding tickets are about 5% of the total. Speeding tickets are so important that they have their own line item on most enforcement reports, even those supposedly targeting other offenses. The exact amount spent on speed traps is harder to figure, but it’s in the low millions. That comes from drivers too, because these grants are paid for by gas taxes.

That last observation gives us the cherry on top of the speed trap sundae. Thanks to the government shutdown, you might hope for a 5% reduction in speeding tickets. Nope. Gas taxes are still being collected. While NHTSA’s car safety division is mostly shut down for lack of funding, their speed trap division is running as usual.

The opinions expressed in this post belong to the author and do not necessarily represent those of the National Motorists Association or the NMA Foundation. This content is for informational purposes and is not intended as legal advice. No representations are made regarding the accuracy of this post or the included links.

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