Traffic Tickets Just a Revenue Tool?

When Thomas A. Garrett got ticketed during a vacation in Pennsylvania, he knew he deserved to get cited, but as an economist, he wasn't too sure the violation was all there was to the ticket. He began to wonder if there was something else at work when the police officer stopped him and wrote up that ticket with its high fee.

As a result, Garrett and Gary A. Wagner decided to do a study of traffic tickets and how much they increase during tougher economic times. After all, it makes sense that governments can make more money during tough times by citing more drivers and collecting more traffic ticket fees. But could this really be the case?

Results of the Ticket Study

Garrett and Wagner, another economist at University Arkansas Little Rock, found that there was a connection between the lower economy and an increase in traffic tickets. In the study, "Red Ink in the Rearview Mirror," which will be published in the Journal of Law and Economics, the authors looked at 14 years of data in North Carolina. The authors also tried to look at other factors that may have affected the traffic ticket count, as in police staff on patrol, tourism, income levels, population, and traffic enforcement campaigns. With these factors in mind, the authors went about looking for connections between all of these factors and issued tickets.

What the authors found was that cop traffic stop and ticket numbers went up as unemployment figures went up. The less people were working, the more tickets were issued. One could argue that because the state needs to pay out more in unemployment, the ticket income helps to offset these new costs, even though the tickets may be going to those very people who are newly unemployed – creating a revolving door of payments and income.

Not surprisingly, there has been some backlash to the findings of the study. The Missouri Police Chiefs Association commented that the study was too narrow and did not account for all of the possible contributing factors. At the same time, the St. Louis Post Dispatch had uncovered memos to police staff in 2004 that threatened police staff if they didn't write more speeding violation tickets, and the newspaper also found letters to city officials from the police chief stating they would try to boost income with more ticket citations.

What was most interesting about the study was not that the ticket citations went up during poor economic times, but that the citations did not go down when the economy rebounded.

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