A new way to tax?
Even so, the simple fact is this: Governments have an incentive to write more tickets, says Thomas Garrett, an assistant vice president and economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis and a co-author of the 2006 study "Red Ink in the Rearview Mirror: Local Fiscal Conditions and the Issuance of Traffic Tickets" (.pdf file).
Garrett and his co-author, Gary Wagner, studied tickets issued by North Carolina counties over 14 years and found that "significantly more tickets are issued in the year following a decline in revenue."
But in years after revenue increases, there was no corresponding drop in traffic tickets, they wrote. "Our results suggest that tickets are used as a revenue generation tool rather than solely a means to increase public safety."
Why is this happening?
"Over the last couple of decades, state and local governments have pretty much exhausted their tax bases," and now they often have to seek voter approval for increased taxes, Garrett says. There have been occasional voter tax revolts. In short, there are incentives for officials to find other ways to raise money. Tickets are one such source.
As Garrett notes, "There's no voter approval on this revenue source."