Study finds another reason to hate recession: More tickets
By Todd C. Frankel
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Tuesday, Jan. 06 2009
The economist got a speeding ticket, and it got him thinking about why.
Thomas A. Garrett, an assistant vice president at the St. Louis Federal
Reserve, knew he deserved to be ticketed while on vacation in Pennsylvania a
few years ago. But, he wondered, are traffic tickets purely about public
safety? Or are other factors at play? Many motorists probably have wondered the
same thing sitting on a highway shoulder waiting for a citation. But Garrett
turned it into a scholarly pursuit. He decided to conduct a study.
What Garrett and a co-author discovered provides yet another reason to hate a
Traffic tickets go up significantly when local government revenue falls, they
found. Their study showed for the first time evidence of how "local governments
behave, in part, as though traffic tickets are a revenue tool to help offset
periods of fiscal distress."
No surprise, some ticketed motorists might say. But Garrett and co-author Gary
A. Wagner, an economist at the University of Arkansas Little Rock, say they
confirmed a connection that seemed to exist only in isolated anecdotes. And
they put a number on it: Controlling for other factors, a 1 percentage point
drop in local government revenue leads to a roughly .32 percentage point
increase in the number of traffic tickets in the following year, a
statistically significant connection.
So in the middle of a recession, with almost all cities and counties facing
falling sales and property taxes, "you would expect more traffic tickets,"
Garrett said from his office in downtown St. Louis.
"When things are bad," Garrett explained, "traffic tickets go up."
The study, entitled "Red Ink in the Rearview Mirror," will be published next
month in the Journal of Law and Economics. It examined 14 years of data from 96
North Carolina counties. (Garrett's co-author was living in North Carolina at
the time.) In North Carolina, as in many states, ticket fines are retained at
the local level. The study authors looked to exclude the distorting effects of
traffic enforcement campaigns and county population differences. They tried to
take into consideration the effects of police per capita, population density,
tourism and median family income.
In fact, they uncovered even more connections between ticket-writing and local
economic conditions. If the county unemployment rate went up, so did the number
of tickets. "This suggests that ... the timing of traffic tickets tends to
mimic changes in county-wide economic conditions," the authors wrote.
Garrett said the study does not dispute that public safety remains at the heart
of ticket-writing. But, he said, the study shows that political and economic
interests affect how much emphasis is placed on writing tickets. "It seems
quite reasonable to me that city officials communicate to police departments"
the need for more ticket revenue, Garrett said.
The Missouri Police Chiefs Association took issue with the study's findings.
Sheldon Lineback, the group's executive director, said examining the connection
between government revenues and traffic tickets "is a very narrow tunnel to
look through" that does not take into account other factors that might lead to
more traffic tickets.
"I don't know of any chief that goes out and mandates more tickets," Lineback
But such incidents do occasionally gain attention. In 2004, the Post-Dispatch
uncovered memos written by top police officials in the town of Bel-Ridge
threatening officers if they didn't write more tickets. That same year, a
Wellston police chief told city leaders that his officers would focus on
writing tickets to boost city revenue.
And Garrett's study includes incidents from around the country where city
officials made the explicit connection between revenue and traffic tickets.
At the Missouri Municipal League, legislative staff associate Patrick Bonnot
said cities suffering from declining revenue would not necessarily look to
traffic tickets as "a way to ease their pain." But, Bonnot said, "the
temptation may be there."
Garrett's ticket study found support from the Owner-Operator Independent
Drivers Association, which frequently complains about ticketing campaigns.
"It's no surprise to a trucker that local governments are using (traffic)
violations as fundraisers," said Norita Taylor, a spokeswoman for the national
truckers group, based outside Kansas City.
The National Motorists Association, a drivers' rights group in Wisconsin, also
has seen anecdotal evidence that local governments "have their fingers in that
ticket pie," said group President Jim Baxter.
In the world of economists, the relationship between traffic tickets and local
government budgets is expected ó rational, even. It has to do with incentives.
Researchers previously have found police make many more drug-related arrests
when they are able to retain seized assets.
Also, Garrett said, local governments squeezed for money are under pressure to
find new ways of raising new revenue. They cannot raise taxes in a recession.
So they look to things such as lottery sales, casino gambling and hotel
occupancy taxes. These are "hidden taxes" ó revenues generated mostly by
nonvoters and nonresidents. Traffic tickets fit the bill.
"It is a politically appealing way of generating revenue," Garrett said.
And there is no shortage of traffic tickets being handed out. In 2006, 55.6
million traffic and ordinance violation cases were filed across the country,
according to the National Center for State Courts. That is an increase of 9
percent from 1997.
But don't expect an economic recovery to slow the traffic stops.
According to Garrett's study, the number of tickets does not go back down when
good times return.
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