The speed trap state?

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

AJC reporter Andria Simmons recently documented how some local governments in Georgia are reaping huge rewards from traffic enforcement. Several metro Atlanta cities are collecting hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars per year — and many times more than the state average for per capita revenue. In today’s pro/con, the head of a police chiefs organization argues with the AJC’s methodology and focus, while a drivers’ advocate criticizes the speed traps that he says prey on motorists and give police opportunities to shake down citizens through questionable vehicle searches.

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Safety and laws, not blame

By Frank Rotondo

I am writing in response to the recent article in the AJC regarding speeding tickets and general traffic enforcement.

There are three major concepts associated with traffic safety: Engineering, education and enforcement. The engineering aspect is handled by proper highway construction and appropriate traffic flow measures. Education is accomplished by published laws and regulations, traffic signs and public service communications. Enforcement is utilized when problems are identified that cannot be addressed effectively through engineering and education.

I do not dispute a small number of agencies have abused the system in the past. However, once the specific agency has been addressed appropriately, the focus should be on the majority of agencies that use speed detection devices (radar and laser) properly to protect the public.

Traffic enforcement in general, including speed enforcement, is focused on safety, not financial gain.

It is not appropriate to compare a city’s population with its traffic enforcement citation numbers. Areas with major traffic corridors must be viewed in a more comprehensive context. The true enforcement activity picture can be seen only when citation statistics are compared with the number of vehicles that use the roads. There may be a significant difference between the population and the average annual daily traffic count collected by the Georgia Department of Transportation.

It is also important to note that a driver may be issued multiple citations during a single traffic stop. For example, a driver stopped for speeding may also be cited for improper lane change, reckless driving or driving under the influence, thereby increasing the overall numbers. Additional citations may be issued, for example, for a non-working tail light, which is canceled with proof of correction.

The Oct. 18 Atlanta Journal-Constitution article cited Doraville as an “aggressive” police force that issued “an average of 40 tickets a day.” As noted above, this number is easily misinterpreted. A review of 2013 traffic flow data collected by the GDOT counted an average of 45,820 vehicles passing through a half-mile stretch of road within Doraville each day. Therefore, traffic citations were issued involving less than one-tenth of 1 percent of vehicles.

Significant variances in traffic fines and fees exist among jurisdictions. Local governing authorities have the responsibility to establish their own fine schedules, within reasonable parameters, for most violations. Therefore, fine and fee amounts are not a law enforcement issue; they are a function of local government. Funds collected from traffic citations are not deposited into a law enforcement agency’s account. These monies typically go into a city or county general fund.

I would also like to address the notion of “speed traps.” Speed limit designations are not set by law enforcement; in most cases, GDOT is responsible for setting safe speed limits for each road within Georgia. Law enforcement is tasked with enforcing that speed limit based on GDOT’s analysis of what is safe and appropriate.

“Speed trap” implies a driver has been tricked into speeding so he can be fined for violating the law. This is simply misleading. When a driver is stopped for speeding, it is a result of the driver going faster than the safe speed for that area. Except for the Georgia State Patrol, enforcement agencies using speed detection devices such as radar or laser are generally not permitted to cite drivers traveling less than 11 mph over the posted speed limit.

In closing, the AJC article appeared to show law enforcement in a poor light with respect to the enforcement of traffic laws. Should the focus not be on the fact that so many Georgia drivers are operating their vehicles in excess of posted safe speeds or committing other unsafe traffic infractions?

As of this writing, there have been 290,393 traffic accidents resulting in 1,000 fatalities in Georgia in 2014; in most of those fatal accidents, a traffic violation was a contributing factor. I submit that a directed focus on encouraging drivers to obey traffic laws in the interest of safety would provide more benefit to the public as a possible means of saving lives on our roads, than to cast blame on today’s centurions for doing one of their appointed lawful assignments.

Frank Rotondo is executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police.

Turning drivers into cash machines

By John Bowman

When people hear the term “speed trap,” they usually conjure up images of a police officer hiding behind a billboard waiting to pick off unsuspecting drivers right where the speed limit drops. While there is some truth to this stereotype, a more accurate description of a speed trap is enforcement of an inappropriately low speed limit on a high-traffic road.

Traffic ticket revenue is a boon to city administrators trying to plug holes in their annual budgets. Speed traps provide a convenient means to that end, always couched in terms of safety but with dubious safety benefits.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s recent investigative series on speed traps clearly illustrates this dollars-before-safety motive at work. For example, an official from the small town of Warwick admitted the city viewed traffic on the Georgia-Florida Parkway as a revenue opportunity and decided to take advantage of it. As a result, Warwick has a new police headquarters, two new Chevy Tahoe police cruisers and a $25,000 license plate recognition system (an abuse of a different kind). No mention is made of any improvements in safety on the parkway.

Officials say the goal of such intense enforcement is to change driver behavior. If that were true, drivers would slow down, and the speed trap would go out of business. Yet speed traps operate successfully in the same locations for months or years on end. Why is that?

Research shows motorists tend to drive at a speed they believe is safe and comfortable no matter what the posted speed is. Traffic engineers use this prevailing speed as the basis for setting realistic and safe speed limits. When the speed limit is set below the natural flow of traffic, many responsible drivers intuitively realize it is safer to go with that flow than to artificially restrict other vehicles, an action that often leads to more, not fewer, accidents.

Where chronic “speeding” problems do exist, raising the speed limit — not heavy-handed traffic enforcement — is often the solution. This puts more drivers into compliance and improves traffic flow, making the roads safer. But it also cuts into the revenue stream, as another example from the ACJ investigation shows. After receiving complaints about a speed trap in Poulan, the Georgia Department of Transportation raised the speed limit on U.S. 82 from 45 to 55 mph. Revenue from speeding tickets has been falling steadily since the change.

Along with turning responsible motorists into cash machines, speed traps foster other dubious law enforcement practices such as ticket quotas, one of law enforcement’s worst-kept secrets. Ticket quotas further shift the emphasis of traffic enforcement toward revenue generation and take away one of a police officer’s most important tools: discretion. There are plenty of well-documented examples, but the recent case of Waldo, Fla., stands out.

The tiny town of Waldo had a well-deserved reputation as a flagrant speed trap for years. It even made the National Motorist Association’s list as the third-worst speed trap city for 2012. This past summer, both the police chief and interim police chief resigned amid allegations of ticket quotas and other improprieties. The city council then voted to disband the police department altogether. Misplaced law enforcement priorities robbed the town of an important civic asset: Its entire police force.

Speed traps go hand in hand with another abusive law enforcement practice known as civil forfeiture. Under civil forfeiture laws, police can confiscate property, like cash and jewelry, from motorists if they suspect the property is tied to illegal activity. The police don’t have to prove such a connection exists, and motorists must often fight lengthy and expensive legal battles to retrieve their property.

As with speed traps, civil forfeitures enrich the municipalities conducting them. Over a 15-year period, Camden County seized approximately $20 million in civil forfeitures. Subsequent purchases included a $90,000 Dodge Viper and a $79,000 boat, among other things. The point is, speed traps give police the opportunity to conduct questionable vehicle searches that lead to these abusive and lucrative roadside shakedowns. According to the Institute for Justice, Georgia has some of the worst civil forfeiture laws and practices in the country.

Speed traps don’t change behavior. That more than 66,000 speed traps have popped up nationwide in the last 10 years, according to the National Speed Trap Exchange, tells us as much. The real way to gain compliance is to set the speed limit correctly, allowing traffic to move more smoothly and, ultimately, more safely.

John Bowman is communications director of the National Motorists Association.

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