Study finds another reason to hate recession: More tickets

St. Louis Post-Dispatch | January 6, 2009
By Todd C. Frankel

The economist got a speeding ticket, and it got him thinking about why.

Thomas A. Garrett, an assistant vice president at the St. Louis Federal Reserve, knew he deserved to be ticketed while on vacation in Pennsylvania a few years ago. But, he wondered, are traffic tickets purely about public safety? Or are other factors at play? Many motorists probably have wondered the same thing sitting on a highway shoulder waiting for a citation. But Garrett turned it into a scholarly pursuit. He decided to conduct a study.

What Garrett and a co-author discovered provides yet another reason to hate a recession.

Traffic tickets go up significantly when local government revenue falls, they found. Their study showed for the first time evidence of how "local governments behave, in part, as though traffic tickets are a revenue tool to help offset periods of fiscal distress."

No surprise, some ticketed motorists might say. But Garrett and co-author Gary A. Wagner, an economist at the University of Arkansas Little Rock, say they confirmed a connection that seemed to exist only in isolated anecdotes. And they put a number on it: Controlling for other factors, a 1 percentage point drop in local government revenue leads to a roughly .32 percentage point increase in the number of traffic tickets in the following year, a statistically significant connection.

So in the middle of a recession, with almost all cities and counties facing falling sales and property taxes, "you would expect more traffic tickets," Garrett said from his office in downtown St. Louis.

"When things are bad," Garrett explained, "traffic tickets go up."

The study, entitled "Red Ink in the Rearview Mirror," will be published next month in the Journal of Law and Economics. It examined 14 years of data from 96 North Carolina counties. (Garrett's co-author was living in North Carolina at the time.) In North Carolina, as in many states, ticket fines are retained at the local level. The study authors looked to exclude the distorting effects of traffic enforcement campaigns and county population differences. They tried to take into consideration the effects of police per capita, population density, tourism and median family income.

In fact, they uncovered even more connections between ticket-writing and local economic conditions. If the county unemployment rate went up, so did the number of tickets. "This suggests that ... the timing of traffic tickets tends to mimic changes in county-wide economic conditions," the authors wrote.

Garrett said the study does not dispute that public safety remains at the heart of ticket-writing. But, he said, the study shows that political and economic interests affect how much emphasis is placed on writing tickets. "It seems quite reasonable to me that city officials communicate to police departments" the need for more ticket revenue, Garrett said. 

The Missouri Police Chiefs Association took issue with the study's findings. Sheldon Lineback, the group's executive director, said examining the connection between government revenues and traffic tickets "is a very narrow tunnel to look through" that does not take into account other factors that might lead to more traffic tickets.

"I don't know of any chief that goes out and mandates more tickets," Lineback said.

But such incidents do occasionally gain attention. In 2004, the Post-Dispatch uncovered memos written by top police officials in the town of Bel-Ridge threatening officers if they didn't write more tickets. That same year, a Wellston police chief told city leaders that his officers would focus on writing tickets to boost city revenue. 

And Garrett's study includes incidents from around the country where city officials made the explicit connection between revenue and traffic tickets.

At the Missouri Municipal League, legislative staff associate Patrick Bonnot said cities suffering from declining revenue would not necessarily look to traffic tickets as "a way to ease their pain." But, Bonnot said, "the temptation may be there."

Garrett's ticket study found support from the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which frequently complains about ticketing campaigns.

"It's no surprise to a trucker that local governments are using (traffic) violations as fundraisers," said Norita Taylor, a spokeswoman for the national truckers group, based outside Kansas City.

The National Motorists Association, a drivers' rights group in Wisconsin, also has seen anecdotal evidence that local governments "have their fingers in that ticket pie," said group President Jim Baxter.

In the world of economists, the relationship between traffic tickets and local government budgets is expected rational, even. It has to do with incentives. Researchers previously have found police make many more drug-related arrests when they are able to retain seized assets. 

Also, Garrett said, local governments squeezed for money are under pressure to find new ways of raising new revenue. They cannot raise taxes in a recession. So they look to things such as lottery sales, casino gambling and hotel occupancy taxes. These are "hidden taxes" revenues generated mostly by nonvoters and nonresidents. Traffic tickets fit the bill.

"It is a politically appealing way of generating revenue," Garrett said.

And there is no shortage of traffic tickets being handed out. In 2006, 55.6 million traffic and ordinance violation cases were filed across the country, according to the National Center for State Courts. That is an increase of 9 percent from 1997.

But don't expect an economic recovery to slow the traffic stops.

According to Garrett's study, the number of tickets does not go back down when good times return.