May 3, 2009
Fewer traffic tickets being issued in N.J.
Ocean County down by 11%
By SHANNON MULLEN
When Beverly McInerney went to Ocean Township Municipal Court on Feb. 10 to contest a traffic summons, she saw that the line of defendants stretched out the door.
"They are definitely giving out more tickets," the Tinton Falls resident concluded.
The experience reinforced her suspicion that, with municipalities desperate for revenue these days, police are in a ticket-writing frame of mind.
While that may well be the conventional wisdom among New Jersey motorists, it turns out the reverse is true.
Traffic summonses statewide are down 2 percent so far this fiscal year, and they're off even more at the Jersey Shore, dropping 4 percent in Monmouth County and 11 percent in Ocean County.
The statistics come from a statewide summary of municipal court activity, which covers summonses issued between July 1 and Feb. 28. Ocean's decrease is the second highest in the state, behind Warren County at 16 percent, the data show.
Several Shore area municipalities have seen dramatic decreases in ticket-writing. Traffic summonses are down 50 percent in Seaside Heights, 43 percent in Colts Neck and 34 percent in Belmar, for example. Summonses fell in Ocean Township, too, by 4 percent.
McInerney is as surprised as anyone. "Get out of here," she said, when told of the trend. "I'm shocked."
Police cited several possible explanations for the decrease:
People are driving less. Because of higher fuel prices last year and an overall slowdown in economic activity, the number of vehicle miles traveled in New Jersey fell in 2008 by 2.4 billion, a decrease of 3.2 percent, according to the Federal Highway Administration.
911 calls are up. Police in some municipalities say they've seen an uptick in nonviolent crimes, such as burglary and shoplifting, which pull officers off their regular patrols.
Police departments are feeling the squeeze. Statewide, the number of officers on the payroll has fallen by nearly 300 since 2006, according to a March survey by the New Jersey State Policemen's Benevolent Association. While federal stimulus funds could mitigate the need for deeper cuts, the survey found that one in five local governments is considering police layoffs. Already, 325 officers have been put on notice that their jobs will be eliminated in the coming months, the survey found.
"With a decrease in officers, there's obviously going to be a decrease in productivity," said state PBA spokesman Jim Ryan.
Less ticket-writing, in turn, can cause additional strain on already tight municipal budgets.
Belmar, for example, saw total revenue from its municipal court decrease last year by about $150,000, a 16-percent drop, said Robbin Kirk, the borough's administrator and chief financial officer. She didn't know how much of the decrease was due to fewer traffic tickets.
"It's one reason why we're having an increase in our tax rate this year," Kirk said.
Police, however, bristle at the perception that there's a link between economic need and traffic enforcement.
"I couldn't even tell you how much our court brings in, because it has nothing to do with us. We don't operate with the purpose of generating revenue," Ocean Township Police Chief Antonio V. Amodio Jr. said. "Our only motivation is to make the community safer."
He said his department aggressively pursues state highway safety grants to pay for extra patrols targeting drunken drivers and motorists violating seat-belt and cell-phone laws.
Ryan, of the state PBA, said he thinks another reason ticket-writing is down may be that some officers are showing more leniency when it comes to relatively minor, secondary offenses, such as violations of the seat-belt law, because they realize how bad the economy is.
The maximum fine for driving faster than 75 mph in a 65 mph zone, for example, is $400, under current guidelines. That doesn't include the insurance surcharges such a violation can trigger. A second ticket on the same stop can be the coup de grace. The fine for failing to produce a registration card, for example, is $500.
McInerney, who was ticketed for failing to yield to an oncoming vehicle that struck the passenger side of her Toyota Camry as she turned left at a green traffic light Jan. 31, had no idea the amounts were so high until she went to court. She avoided a surcharge by agreeing to a plea bargain but she was staggered by the total fee: $439.
Ryan said officers are well aware of how costly a ticket can be.
"If you're facing a furlough or layoff yourself, I don't think you're going to go out there and try to give the maximum number of tickets," he said. "When I'm stopping a motorist for a speeding violation and he (has) a plate light out, I'm going to do my best to send a message without walloping him with fines."
Mark Wilson, a spokesman for the New Jersey Police Traffic Officers Association, agreed.
"It's just way too expensive a proposition, that's what some people feel," he said.
Yet another possibility is that at least some motorists are driving more carefully, knowing they can ill-afford a ticket right now.
Hard-bitten New Jersey road warriors who witness egregious driving antics on a daily basis might scoff at that notion. Yet Stephen Peacock, for one, said he's eased off the accelerator for precisely that reason.
"Whereas I had habitually driven just slightly above the limit — say 5 mph over locally and 10 mph-plus on the highway — now I almost always drive within the lawful boundaries," Peacock, 44, of Point Pleasant, wrote in an e-mail message to the Asbury Park Press. "It simply is not worth coughing up a couple of hundred hard-earned dollars to the state in order to gamble on the benefits of getting somewhere five minutes sooner."
ON THE WEB:
and look under "What's New" for a searchable database of traffic, parking and criminal activities in your municipal court.
MAXIMUM FINESFOR MOTOR VEHICLE OFFENSES
Registration card not in vehicle: $500
Failure to endorse license: $500
Violation of special learner's permit conditions: $100
Failure to wear a seat belt: $20
Racing on highway: $100 (first offense)*
Throwing or dropping debris from a vehicle: $1,000
Failure to pass to left when overtaking: $200*
Reckless driving: $200*
*Fines doubled when in 65 mph zone.
**Fine doubled when driving 20 mph over speed limit or 10 mph over in a 65 mph zone.
Source: New Jersey Statewide Violations Bureau Schedule, as of October 2008