Speed Trap: More Traffic Tickets in Cash-Strapped Cities

Last Updated Apr 23, 2010 12:52 PM EDT

If your travels take you through a budget-strapped city or county: Slow Down. Two economic studies based on actual ticket data conclude that your odds of getting a traffic ticket are higher in municipalities with budget problems.

There's obviously no Retirement Beat angle here. Then again, if this news has any impact on your driving habits and prevents a pricey speeding ticket, the cost of an online traffic school course, and a possible bump up in your insurance premium, well, that's a couple hundred dollars you just saved.

That completes the financial advice in this post.

My main purpose is to share some research I stumbled upon that I enjoyed simply for the satisfaction that it converts urban legend into fact. And it strikes me as especially timely given that the steep decline in property tax and sales revenue during the past few years has caused big fiscal problems for state and local governments. Both studies noted below used data that pre-dates the Great Recession; I'm just guessing here, but seems sort of logical that the fiscal-straits/traffic ticket link may be even stronger today.

Budget Shortfall?: Steer Clear

In Political Economy at Any Speed: What Determines Traffic Citations? economists Michael Makowsky and Thomas Stratmann focused on traffic ticket data from Massachusetts. The Massachusetts link is important here. Law prevents municipalities from raising taxes beyond a set level without voter approval. So the economists took a look at traffic ticket patterns in areas where the locals had in fact voted down an increase.

As Makowsky explained in a recent Tax Foundation podcast:

If you hold everything else constant, if you have a 50-50 chance of getting a ticket, if you got pulled over in a town that had an override failing vote, you had a 61% chance of getting a ticket.

The odds rose to 76% if you happened to be an out-of-towner just passing through. That's the classic "exporting" tax at work. Rather than tick off locals, slap the ticket, or the tax, or the fee, on outsiders. (see also: hotel taxes, rental car taxes etc.)

In a similar study, Red Ink in the Rearview Mirror economists Gary A. Wagner and Thomas A. Garrett found that in North Carolina, a 10 percent decrease in a county's revenue growth rate triggered a 6.4 percent increase in tickets in the following year.

The authors succinctly pointed out the low-hanging-fruit nature of traffic tickets:

Traffic tickets provide an attractive revenue source for local governments because the amount of revenue that can be generated is often unrestricted, they provide a mechanism to capture revenue from non-residents and non-voters, and most traffic offenses possess a low strict-liability threshold to achieve a conviction (as opposed to the higher criminal intent standard.)

Now that said, traffic ticket revenue is typically a drop in the bucket for municipalities. But these days, every little bit helps. So the advice is clear, if your commute takes you through a particularly cash-strapped city or county, slow down. Or consider a different route. And if you're planning any out-of-state road trips, you might want to be extra cautious driving in Alaska and Arizona. According to Census data, those states had the biggest percentage drop in 2009 revenue:

Source: U.S. Census