Turning Drivers into Cash Machines

By John Bowman, Communications Director, National Motorists Association

When people hear the term “speed trap” they usually conjure up images of a police officer hiding behind a billboard waiting to pick off unsuspecting drivers right where the speed limit drops. And while there is some truth to this stereotype, a more accurate description of a speed trap is enforcement of an inappropriately low speed limit on a high-traffic road.

Traffic ticket revenue is a boon to city administrators trying to plug the holes in their annual budgets. Speed traps provide a convenient means to that end, always couched in terms of safety but with dubious safety benefits.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s recent investigative series on speed traps clearly illustrates this dollars-before-safety motive at work. For example, an official from the small town of Warwick admitted the city viewed traffic on The Georgia-Florida Parkway as a revenue opportunity and decided to take advantage of it. As a result, Warwick has a new police headquarters, two new Chevy Tahoe police cruisers and a $25,000 license plate recognition system (an abuse of a different kind). No mention is made of any improvements in safety on the parkway.

Officials say the goal of such intense enforcement is to change driver behavior. If that were true, drivers would slow down, and the speed trap would go out of business. Yet, speed traps operate successfully in the same locations for months or years on end. Why is that?

Research shows that motorists tend to drive at a speed they believe is safe and comfortable no matter what the posted speed is. Traffic engineers use this prevailing speed as the basis for setting realistic and safe speed limits. When the speed limit is set below the natural flow of traffic, many responsible drivers intuitively realize that it is safer to go with that flow than to artificially restrict other vehicles, an action that often leads to more, not fewer, accidents.

Where chronic “speeding” problems do exist, raising the speed limit—not heavy-handed traffic enforcement—is often the solution. This puts more drivers into compliance and improves traffic flow, making the roads safer. But it also cuts into the revenue stream, as another example from the ACJ investigation shows. After receiving complaints about a speed trap in Poulan, the Georgia Department of Transportation raised the speed limit on U.S. 82 from 45 to 55 mph. Revenue from speeding tickets has been falling steadily since the change.

Along with turning responsible motorists into cash machines, speed traps foster other dubious law enforcement practices such as ticket quotas, one of law enforcement’s worst kept secrets. Ticket quotas further shift the emphasis of traffic enforcement toward revenue generation and take away one of a police officer’s most important tools: discretion. A Google search will turn up plenty of well-documented examples, but the recent case of Waldo, Florida, stands out.

The tiny town of Waldo had a well-deserved reputation as a flagrant speed trap for years. It even made the National Motorist Association’s list as the third worst speed trap city for 2012. This past summer, both the police chief and the interim police chief resigned amid allegations of ticket quotas and other improprieties. The city council then voted to disband the police department altogether. Misplaced law enforcement priorities robbed the town of an important civic asset: its entire police force.

Speed traps go hand-in-hand with another abusive law enforcement practice known as civil forfeiture. Under civil forfeiture laws, police can confiscate property, like cash and jewelry, from motorists if they suspect the property is tied to illegal activity. The police don’t actually have to prove such a connection exists, and motorists must often fight lengthy and expensive legal battles to retrieve their property.

As with speed traps, civil forfeitures enrich the municipalities conducting them. Over a 15-year period, Camden County seized approximately $20 million in civil forfeitures. Subsequent purchases included a $90,000 Dodge Viper and a $79,000 boat among other things. The point is, speed traps give police the opportunity to conduct questionable vehicle searches that lead to these abusive and lucrative roadside shakedowns. According to the Institute for Justice, Georgia has some of the worst civil forfeiture laws and practices in the country.

Speed traps don’t change behavior. The fact that more than 66,000 speed traps have popped up nationwide in the last 10 years, according to The National Speed Trap Exchange, tells us as much. The real way to gain compliance is to set the limit correctly allowing traffic to move more smoothly and ultimately more safely.

This article originally appeared in Nov. 10th edition of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Reproduced with permission.

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