Michigan State Police ran a “distracted driving” patrol that looked a lot like regular traffic work. They ticketed two drivers for texting. The rest of the stops — 147 of them — were fishing expeditions or license plate hits.
Few departments enforce laws against texting while driving. Barring bad luck or a crash investigation, it’s impossible. Michigan police say it is far easier to convict of improper lane use or careless driving.
So why don’t they give up the pretense?
Follow the money. Quoting Michigan’s federal-aid ticketing plan:
Overtime Traffic Enforcement.
The NHTSA requires states to provide for a statewide, high-visibility
special traffic enforcement program (STEP) for occupant protection,
distracted driving, and impaired/drunk driving that emphasizes
publicity during not less than three campaigns.
One of the core missions of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is paying for police overtime. States can’t stop the patrols simply because police can’t find distracted drivers to ticket. A lot of money depends on calling ordinary traffic patrols distracted driving enforcement programs.
They also can’t stop because the programs don’t work. Agencies’ budgets are based on how much money they spent in the past rather than how effectively they spent it. In more opaque language, “The grant budgets for each project are determined by past liquidation of funds.”
Police have to talk the talk. They don’t have to walk the walk. Some departments take distracted driving money and spend it on regular traffic work. Many states take seat belt money and spend it on speed traps.
Police in West Bridgewater, Massachusetts took a distracted driving grant and used it to ticket distracted stopping. In Massachusetts as in Michigan it’s almost impossible to enforce laws against using texting while driving. But using a phone while stopped at a light, that’s an easy ticket to write. I hear it’s one of the biggest tickets in New York City, where drivers spend a lot of time stopped.
The formal title of Michigan’s plan is “Evidence Based Traffic Safety Enforcement Program.” Relax and feed the buzzwords flow through you.
The most recent progress report I can find is for FY 2016. 63,991 hours of overtime, 31,563 speeding and seat belt tickets, and 2,109 DUI arrests. Pages of bar graphs showing how this did not help Michigan meet highway safety goals. The program failed 21 of 23 safety-based performance metrics.
Non-safety goals were mostly met. Of greatest importance to police, the overtime goal was achieved. Of greatest importance to NHTSA, those officers made quota. The quota is approximately one traffic stop per billable hour. Police doubled that.
The quota is measured in traffic stops, but an arrest counts for four stops. Since FY 2017 a DUI arrest is worth six stops. Now does it sound like a ticket quota?
Michigan police say they have been letting crash statistics guide enforcement for 14 years, and “high-crash counties tend to be the same each year.” They’ve been following this evidence-based model for 14 years and the high crash counties are still high crash counties. Isn’t that evidence that the model doesn’t work?
Mobilizations do a good job of turning overtime money into tickets. They do not do a good job of making roads safer.
The National Motorists Association asked the federal Department of Transportation to change the way it funds enforcement efforts and emphasize safety over ticket quotas. The DOT refused. There’s too much money involved. The traffic operations side of NHTSA has only one tool and they’re going to use it.
NHTSA has a hammer and we all look like nails.
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