Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Don't be surprised: Number of Texas traffic tickets declining

The editorial board at the Austin Statesman opined yesterday that, "We were surprised to learn that the number of traffic tickets issued each fiscal year by Austin police officers has decreased sharply over the past three years, from 264,428 in 2009 to 133,852 in 2012, as reported by the American-Statesman’s Dave Harmon and Tony Plohetski." Their surprise is disappointing because the Statesman editors would have been fully informed of the trend had they been regular Grits for Breakfast readers, e.g.:
The news story accompanying the editorial ("Traffic citations plummet in Austin and other major Texas cities," Jan. 1) updated data from those missives, informing us that:
Nine of the state’s 10 most populous cities had fewer traffic cases filed in municipal court in 2011 than the previous year, according to statistics from the state Office of Court Administration. (San Antonio was the lone exception, with 16 percent more traffic cases.)
Even Texas Department of Public Safety troopers issued an average of 443 fewer tickets per day in 2011 than they did in 2008 on Texas highways — a 14 percent drop, although the number remained virtually the same from 2010 to 2011. The slowdown has come as the state’s population continues to grow.
The paper quoted Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo insisting that "there’s a direct correlation between traffic enforcement and bad outcomes," but at least for fatalities, that doesn't jibe with the data. The newshook for the story was that Austin traffic fatalities increased this year, but statewide traffic deaths have declined in recent years despite hundreds of thousands of fewer traffic tickets being written statewide. The Statesman reported in August that:
In 2010, ... the state saw 3,028 traffic deaths and about 234 billion miles of driving, the audit said.

That equates to 1.29 deaths per 100 million miles driven, the formulation used by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for evaluating road safety.
In 2006, by comparison, the death rate was 1.5 deaths per 100 million miles traveled in Texas. The rate fell every year between 2006 and 2010.
If Acevedo were right that there's a "direct correlation" between traffic enforcement and fatalities, then why have traffic deaths declined statewide even as police in Texas dramatically reduced the number of tickets written? That bit of conventional wisdom doesn't match the statewide data. Any correlation is at best indirect and much stronger correlations may be found, for example. between declining traffic deaths and improved medical techniques, expanded access to regional trauma centers at hospitals, and better safety equipment in the vehicles themselves.

Indeed, singular focus on traffic enforcement contributes to government ignoring other factors leading to reduced accidents, like improved traffic engineering and public transportation. My own view is that within a couple of decades, perhaps sooner, we'll see traffic deaths plunge even further thanks to technological advances that reduce or eliminate driver error. If and when that happens, it will fundamentally change the role and tactics of local police, who in Austin, despite recent declines, presently spend more time writing traffic tickets, according to a consultant's 2012 staffing analysis (pdf), than on any other activity.


Tom said...

It's simple. Cops know that traffic tickets equal revenue for the city. When they are unhappy with the administration, they play ticket games.
About 20 years ago, the Houston cops were unhappy with Mayor Kathy Whitmire. So, for about 6 months they wrote tickets for almost everything they could find. When she budgeted on that level of tickets, all of a sudden they couldn't find a traffic violation in Houston. And, the city had a budget crunch.
Funny how that happened.

Anonymous said...

One could either say traffic law compliance is likely up during the trying financial times of the last few years or that officers have been (somewhat) more compassionate during the same financial trying times...who knows.

Or officer calls of service continue to increase, thereby decreasing traffic enforcement time.

Robert Langham said...

Tickets are written for money, period. Safety talk is just BS to cover that fact and they know it.

Lee said...

Just be thankful and count your blessings.

North Texas Cop said...

Looking at traffic tickets alone doesn't give you an accurate picture. You should also look at the number of traffic stops in which no enforcement was taken. In one of the cities you mentioned, I know for a fact that traffic contacts are nearly doubled from last year even as traffic tickets issued are down. Cops are giving far more written warnings than traffic citations. There are some administrators and traffic safety advocates who claim that traffic stops alone change driver behavior.

Anonymous said...

Like so many other nonsensical comments Acevedo makes, this one is equally as illogical. Any reputable officer who has spent any time in law enforcement realizes that that ‘working’ traffic by issuing traffic tickets for running red lights, speeding, and other ‘legitimate’ violations of the Texas Traffic Code will alter bad driver behavior and save lives.
Yes, better medical triage, instant EMS transportation, and better built safety measures in vehicles absolutely keep folks alive, but police still play a critical part in public safety. A police ‘presence’ on the street is a deterrent not only to traffic offenses, but other criminal offenses.
Unfortunately, Austin is notorious throughout the State as a dangerous city to drive in because traffic control is nonexistent. A routine drive down Mopac around 3:00pm will show speeders driving faster than 80 mph, weaving in and out of traffic, and where are the police? None in sight! I wish I could count the times I have rolled up on a red light, only to have a driver race by me and bust the light. Again, no officer was in sight.
There are many good officers who understand the importance of stopping and talking to a driver who has just broken the law. The stop is immediate, and the results, long lasting. Does it really do any good to receive a ticket (which was generated by a traffic camera) in the mail? Of course, the receiver will usually or probably pay the ticket, but will it alter the driving behavior? Probably not!
Officers need to get out of their car and do actual police work instead of depending on traffic cameras to do the work for them. Traffic cameras are after the fact, and have they really ever saved a life?
I wish Acevedo would pay attention to the vehicle fatality problem in this city, instead of spending so much time posing for TV cameras.
Former Dallas Police Officer
Former TCLEOSE instructor

Gritsforbreakfast said...

NTC writes: "There are some administrators and traffic safety advocates who claim that traffic stops alone change driver behavior."

I've often thought that may be the case but have never seen studies that tested the hypothesis. Just tried googling around on the subject and I found anecdotal evidence but surprisingly no studies on point, at least that I could easily locate, vis a vis the effectiveness of warnings vs. tickets. I'm surprised, given the vast volumes of data that should exist on the topic.