More Than Just a Ticket

Somewhere in this country, a police instructor is standing in front of a classroom full of police cadets, teaching them how to write some poor schmuck just like you a traffic ticket. What do you think he’s telling them? No, no. I’m not talking tactics here. Nothing about safety zones or angling your cruiser to maximize both visibility and cover. I mean more basic than that. After all, that cop’s addressing a group of youngsters who, like the vast majority of Americans, have grown up seeing the traffic ticket as little more than a slap in the face from a bully with a badge. How is he going to make that room full of people change their point of view? How will he make them see the situation as a cop, and not as a victim?

Well, I can tell you from personal experience (I’ve been both the cadet and the instructor) that he will say something about traffic citations serving a dual purpose. On the one hand, when you pull somebody over, you put an immediate stop to dangerous driving behavior. But on the other, you open up an opportunity to educate the violator. You have a chance to engage – as score upon score of management books so lovingly state – in positive discipline. Educate a driver as to what they did wrong, and they will thrill at their new knowledge. They will spread the news to their friends and family, who will in turn spread what they’ve learned to their friends and family. Remember that commercial from years ago, the one that said, “…and she’ll tell two friends…and she’ll tell two friends?” Well, this is the same thing, only with legal instruments instead of shampoo.

I know, I know. Even as I sit here at my desk writing this I can hear the skeptics groaning. “Oh please,” they’re saying. “Not another article on how traffic tickets are really good for us. Say it all you want; we all know the truth. It’s really about quotas. Or racial profiling. Or guilt by virtue of being from out of town. Write enough tickets, win the toaster. Go tell your load of official BS to somebody gullible enough to buy it.”

Despite the years I spent as a traffic cop, I do sympathize with the skeptics out there. Back in my wild days, I got enough tickets to wallpaper my apartment…and I resented every one of them. You could have told me about the statistics linking aggressive traffic enforcement to reduced injury crashes and lower overall traffic fatalities all day long, and it wouldn’t have paid one cent of the fines I had to work overtime to cover. Like everybody else out there I would have said, “I was moving with the flow of traffic. The cops are just picking on me.”

Fair enough. I’m not here to change anybody’s mind about getting a ticket. I know it sucks. But what I do want to point out is the wide gap between what your average street cop knows about writing tickets that the Ivy League economists have yet to figure out…despite a recent flurry of activity on the subject.

So, here goes…

First of all, the economists

A few years ago, a young graduate student named Michael D. Makowsky was pulled over by a Massachusetts State Trooper and ticketed for speeding. Makowsky claims he was going no faster than the cars around him, but for some arbitrary reason was singled out of the crowd for enforcement purposes. He suspected the reason was his out of state license plate, and he set out to prove just that.

Makowsky got together with a George Mason University professor named Thomas Stratmann, and the two of them started collecting data. As it turns out, they hit an economist’s gold mine. Massachusetts, like just about every other state in the Union, has for years now had a law requiring police to record detailed information on each traffic stop as a way to safeguard against racial profiling. Captured in the data fields was information on the violator’s race, sex, age, address, and disposition of the police-initiated contact. That alone would have proved valuable. However, Massachusetts is not exactly a huge state, geographically speaking. Culturally, yes, they’re huge, but size-wise…not so much. Many cities and towns tend to be small and close together, so that six and a half million people live in close quarters. As a result, the state’s peace officers frequently encounter people from many different neighboring towns during their routine patrols. For Makowsky and Stratmann, it was the perfect environment to test their theory.

What the two researchers found was that out-of-towners were more likely to get ticketed (as opposed to being issued a warning) than were local drivers – 24 percent more likely, in fact. That percentage was even higher for drivers hailing from out-of-state.

And when a town’s financial health was taken into consideration, the percentages really spiked. Poorer towns tended to write more tickets.

The implication seemed to be that small towns across Massachusetts were engaging in wholesale highway robbery. They saw cash cows rolling through their streets everyday and they set out to milk them.

And they’re not alone. The Makowsky-Stratmann findings received a real shot in the arm from two other researchers, Gary A. Wagner and Thomas A. Garrett, who published a paper at about the same time on the financial incentives behind writing traffic tickets. The Wagner and Garrett study, which focused on North Carolina, pointed to a compelling relationship between the failing economic health of a community and the number of tickets written by its cops. Specifically, a 10 percent decrease in economic growth resulted in a 6.4 increase in tickets.

Wagner and Garrett are careful to point out that while the two trends may be related, one does not explicitly cause the other. There are no cigar-smoking backroom politicos ordering their cops to only write out-of-towners. This isn’t the Massachusetts or North Carolina version of The Dukes of Hazard. But these small town cops are working at a steady job when a lot of people around them are getting laid off. Times are hard. They see the writing on the wall. And when confronted with the choice between producing or waiting in the unemployment line, Wagner and Garrett reason, what cop wouldn’t hustle a few easy tickets?

The results of the two studies are appealing to anyone who has ever received a speeding ticket while traveling. After all, none of us likes to admit that we got caught doing something wrong and deserved what we got. It’s easier to blame it on the cop, or the corrupt small town city governments who employ him.

But these findings are not without critics. Professional police organizations, such as the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association and the Massachusetts Municipal Association, argue that the very premise is flawed. In order for the numbers to be truly convincing, you would need to show that the revenue earned from traffic enforcement was a significant financial incentive…and the evidence does not support this.

The average Massachusetts small town gets approximately 1 percent of its revenue from traffic fines. For larger cities, such as Boston, the percentage is even lower than that. In fact, any revenue gained is quickly swallowed up by the cost of sending emergency responders to the crashes that consistently increase where traffic enforcement is lax.

But that’s not the only objection to Makowsky’s findings. There is a much more human angle as well.

You see, no traffic stop is simple. It may seem like nothing more than an annoyance to the violator, but for the cop, it is an uncertain and dynamic situation.

The average police cruiser is loaded down with computers, tracking devices, radar units, video cameras, and radios. The cop has to monitor all those instruments and devices while safely driving his own car through crowded traffic and simultaneously identifying the unsafe driving of others.

Then he has to plan the stop. Where to do it? Is this the safest spot, or should he wait a quarter of a mile?

Then he has to contact the driver, who could be anybody from Timothy McVeigh or Mohammed Atta to a pissed off soccer mom. They could be a redneck with six pit bulls in the bed of his truck. A drunk. A beauty queen. Anybody.

Then he has to write and explain the ticket while hoping his fat butt doesn’t get run over by somebody drifting off the roadway because they’re looking for their cell phone, or yelling at their kids, or whatever.

This goes on and on, but I think you get the idea. The traffic stop, when all its environmental factors are taken into consideration, is complex. Add to that the fact that violator may provoke the cop, or maybe the cop had a fight with his girlfriend that morning, and you can see how many anxieties and stressors play a role in deciding when a ticket gets issued and when it doesn’t.

The issue is far more complex than simply where the driver is from, and I think that if the Makowsky-Stratmann study had stopped with the issue of who got tickets, then it probably wouldn’t have been anything more than an interesting statistical observation.

But to their credit, Makowsky and Stratmann took the matter one step further and looked at the long range impact of ticket writing to see if there were any positive benefits. Was the police instructor lying to his cadets when he told them writing tickets both put an immediate stop to dangerous driving and educated the public?

Turns out he wasn’t.

The Makowsky-Stratmann investigation looked at 300 Massachusetts communities during a two year time period. As it turns out, 100 extra tickets a month translates into 14.3 fewer accidents and 5.6 fewer injuries. Those numbers are significant, no matter how you look at it. More tickets equal safer roads.

And that may make Makowsky the best example of our police instructor’s assertions about traffic enforcement’s dual purposes.

But then again, for all their impressive number crunching, Makowsky and Stratmann haven’t really said anything that cops haven’t been saying for years.

Broken Windows, again

At the same time that I was learning how to write traffic tickets, I was also learning about a fairly new concept called Community Policing, which is essentially a grassroots response to the very real fact that it is logistically impossible to put a cop on every street corner. The idea is for selected police officers to go forth into their community and act as cheerleaders. If you get enough people excited about their community, they will begin to feel some ownership for it. They will be willing to cover the street corners missing an officer.

Sounds great, right?

Well, there is evidence to show that, if a police department is willing to invest the manpower and the long hours necessary to sustain a community policing program, it can make a difference.

The movement even has a catch phrase, coined by two of its pioneers, James Q. Wilson and George Kelling – “broken windows.”

Wilson and Kelling used the example of a broken window to show how communities backslide into crime. One broken window on a block, when left broken, acts as a siren call to vandals to break more windows. When no one cares, there’s no harm in breaking them all.

It’s not a long leap from breaking windows to breaking into homes. Trespass leads to violence, and violence leads to rampant crime of all stripes.

But those bad things are less likely to happen in places that repair broken windows as soon as they happen; or wash away graffiti the moment it appears; or introduce themselves to their neighbors; or call in the creepy guy in the panel van hanging around the local elementary school. That is the essence of community policing.

Though James Wilson himself has been reluctant to apply the broken windows philosophy to traffic enforcement, one can see the logic of doing so.

Pulling people over is one of the most visible things cops do. Just about everybody has driven down the road and spotted some motorcycle cop in shiny leather boots and reflective sunglasses writing a ticket to a sullen-faced traffic violator. A few of us have even realized the vindicating pleasure of getting our doors blown off by some lunatic, only to spot him a mile down the road, pulled over by a traffic cop.

Sights like that are enough to let us know that somebody is watching. Not everybody gets caught, true, but enough do in certain areas for a reputation to develop. Think of the little town near you with the reputation as a speed trap. When you have to pass through there, do you speed?

And so we get to main issue. What is it about traffic enforcement that cops know, but the academics have yet to fully grasp?

The answer might surprise you.

Steal this commute

Next time you drive through your neighborhood, take a look at all the garage doors standing open. For your average law-abiding citizen, it’s nothing but an open garage door. But look at those open garage doors from a burglar’s perspective. They might as well be a buffet table.

Now look at the same open garage door from a street cop’s perspective. He’s driving down your street, looking at that open door, and dreading the burglary call he’s going to have to handle when the homeowner finally realizes his lawnmower’s gone. The cop doesn’t want to handle the call any more than the homeowner wants to lose his lawnmower.

And it’s not because he’s lazy.

Cops are given geographic areas of responsibility. That burglary is a violation, an outrage, to the homeowner…but to the cop it’s an indictment of his professionalism. When he gets back to his station, his buddies are going to laugh at him because he can’t take care of his section.

The end result is a slippery slope of apathy. The homeowner can only get stolen from so many times before he starts to think that the police are worthless. And the cop can only handle so many calls for the same thing before he stops caring. After all, is it his fault the homeowner can’t keep his stuff locked up?

Everybody loses; everybody experiences goal frustration.

The weapon is aggressive traffic enforcement. Good street cops know this. They realize that the burglar is not going to push that lawnmower away from the scene of the crime. He is going to toss it in the back of a pickup and go on about his business, which is looking for more open garage doors.

The underlying concept here is that people who commit one type of crime are probably going to be willing to commit other types of crime.

And that concept has some compelling evidence to support it.

For years, the upper management in police agencies across the country have had a love affair with map making. Walk into any police station in any city in the country and check out the walls if you don’t believe me. Next to the softball trophies and community appreciation plaques you’ll see maps showing the agency’s area of responsibility. Some will be marked with colored pins denoting recent burglaries; others will show the location of recent rapes; still others will show car crashes.

Experienced cops long ago noticed that the colored pins tended to cluster in the same spots, regardless of the particular incident denoted by the pins. It didn’t matter what crime you were talking about, they tended to happen in the same places.

The traditional policing method involved tackling these incidents one offender at a time. Go out there and make face to face contacts. In other words, show the bad guys the door, one at a time.

Well, the traditional approach doesn’t work. We figured that out back in the early 80s, which is how community policing developed.

And now we are on the verge of a new approach, one that takes the lessons learned from community policing and years of sticking colored pins in maps and focuses them on the one common denominator in crime – namely, that criminals have to commute to work just like the rest of us.

Traffic stops are the most visible things cops do, as I mentioned. One broken window leads to more broken windows, as James Q. Wilson mentioned. Now a new federally-sponsored program called Data Driven Approaches to Crime and Traffic Safety (which goes by the truly uninspired acronym DDACTS) is attempting to glue those two concepts together. The idea is that high intensity traffic enforcement in high crime areas makes the most sense for resource-strapped police departments. It couldn’t be simpler. You find out where your problem areas are, and then you start writing tickets there. A lot of tickets. In addition to tickets, you’re going to turn up drugs and illegal guns and prostitution and all the other elements of crime. Plus, the heightened presence acts as a deterrent to future crime, much in the same way as a town’s reputation as a speed trap serves to reduce crashes.

Programs like DDACTS are nothing new. Forward-thinking jurisdictions from Canada to Arizona have used traffic enforcement as a way to curb everything from narcotics and weapons violations to gang violence. The results are consistently encouraging, and yet this is the first time the strategy has been deployed under the guidance of federal planners.

DDACTS test sites were formed in seven areas across the country back in 2008, and some, such as Baltimore, Maryland, have already seen considerable reductions in both crime and car crashes.

It will be interesting to see what happens when the brains like Makowsky and Stratmann finally start listening to what dumb old street cops have know for years.


Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of literature on the relationship between crime and traffic enforcement, but the sources below will serve as a good starting place for the curious to research the problem further.

Data-Driven Approaches to Crime and Traffic Safety (DDACTS): Operational Guidelines. U.S. Dept. of Justice. August, 2009.

Garrett, Thomas A. and Gary A. Wagner. “Red Ink in the Rearview Mirror: Local Fiscal Conditions and the Issuance of Traffic Tickets.” Journal of Law & Economics. University of Chicago Press, Vol. 52(1), p. 71-90.

Kelling, George and Coles, Catherine M. Fixing Broken Windows. Touchstone: New York, NY. 1996.

Kelling, George and Wilson, James Q. “Broken Windows.” The Atlantic. March, 1982.

Makowsky, Michael D. and Thomas Stratmann. “Political Economy at Any Speed: What Determines Traffic Citations?” American Economic Review. Vol. 99 (2009), Issue 1 (March), p. 509-27.

Moskowitz, Eric. “Slow, Recession Ahead: Turns Out, Money Really Does Drive Speeding Tickets.” The Boston Globe, February 8, 2009.

Vanderbilt, Tom. “In Praise of Traffic Tickets.” August 28, 2009.

Vanderbilt, Tom. Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us). Vintage Books: New York, NY. 2008.

Wilson, James Q. and Kelling, George. “Making Neighborhoods Safer.” The Atlantic. February, 1989.

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