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How Much Does the Local Economy Rely on Speeding Tickets and Fines?

Taxation by citation is a real thing, and it’s everywhere

Most cities love to fine their citizens for the smallest infractions — like not moving your car for a street cleaner that may or may not actually sweep past every third Thursday of the month or whatever. Things like speeding tickets are often defended in the name of public safety, but how many of these chickenshit fines are intentional? How much are cities making on this? Is it sort of a conspiracy? Let’s pull over some answers. 

How much money do cities make on speeding tickets and stuff like that?

It varies a whole lot, as each municipality is different. Pretty much everyone’s experienced those small towns — and they’re everywhere — where the local fuzz sits right on the city limits and feasts all day, every day, on drivers who didn’t reduce their speed fast enough, or are driving no more than one mile per hour above the local speed limit.

But it’s not limited to small cities. In 2018, fines and forfeitures in Chicago “accounted for nearly 11 percent of the city’s general fund — the highest of any of the nation’s 50 biggest cities — and about 5 percent of total governmental revenues,” according to an in-depth report by Governing magazine. That’s not an anomaly: In nearly 600 jurisdictions they looked at, fines account for more than 10 percent of general fund revenues. And for at least 284 of those municipalities, it’s more than 20 percent of the general fund!

A report in Colorado in 2015 found that numerous towns get 30 to 90 percent of their revenue through tickets, fines and court fees! And whatever you do, stay the hell away from Campo, Colorado, and this guy:

So this money is going into the general fund? Not just to the cops or whatever?

Mostly, but not always. Many places in Oklahoma, for example, channel the money into specific police or public safety funds. For officers who have the power to issue tickets, that provides quite the incentive for them to issue tickets, does it not? 

Why go through all of this and piss off your entire city?

Because it’s vastly easier for a local government to increase fines than it is to raise taxes of any kind — sales taxes, property taxes, you name it. And cities almost always need money. Plus, things like speeding or illegally parking are, morally speaking, pretty black-and-white issues, which makes them easier to exploit. Plus there’s the difficulty of fighting tickets like this — most people don’t have the time or the patience to navigate the byzantine machinations of local traffic court, they just pay the goddamn fine and move on with their lives, so these fines are kind of a revenue-generating slam dunk.

Surveys have shown that 90 percent of U.S. mayors are seeking new revenue sources other than taxes, and 65 percent are looking to increase municipal fees for services. What’s the easiest way to stealthily tax your constituents? Hit them up for minor infractions — bonus points for saying it’s all in the name of public safety!

Yeah, but they do have a point there — speeding is fucking dangerous.

No doubt. Driving is still one of the most dangerous things you can do, and pedestrian fatalities keep increasing. It’s obviously in everyone’s interest to drive safely. Although groups like the National Motorists Association, which, among other things, likes to fight speed limits, claims that speed is an overrated factor in accidents. 

For the record, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration claims that “for more than two decades, speeding has been involved in approximately one-third of all motor vehicle fatalities. In 2017, speeding was a contributing factor in 26 percent of all traffic fatalities.”

So are governments factoring these fines into the budget?

Yes — they’re actually projecting future revenue from it. According to City Journal, in 2006, Nashville’s mayor worked a 33 percent increase in traffic-ticket revenue into the city’s proposed budget, a case of the tail very much wagging the dog. 

Is it fair to say that revenue — not public safety — is the main catalyst for fines, then?

Here is just one example, but an illustrative one: A couple of researchers looked at the ticketing data for various counties in North Carolina over 14 months — they found a statistically significant increase in traffic tickets issued in the year following a decline in local government revenue. And after California voters passed the infamous Proposition 13, which capped property taxes for some, traffic fines went up by 10 times the previous amounts.

Is there anything technically wrong with cities making money by fining people who are literally breaking the law?

It’s true — governments provide innumerable essential services to people, and that money’s gotta come from somewhere. But critics point to consistent research that shows that the poor and people of color are disproportionately impacted by fines and fees: If we consider them taxes (stealth taxes), then they’re regressive taxes, i.e., uniform taxes, which are uniformly a bigger deal to a person with less money than to a person with more money.

Taxation by citation may also have an effect on the local citizenry. The Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm, released a study showing that residents who get cited show a lower level of trust in government officials and institutions, suggesting that using “code enforcement for revenue or other non-public-safety reasons may undermine trust and cooperation in their communities.”

Where are the worst places for this?

It’s pervasive as hell, but take a look at this interactive map from Governing: The dots represent local governments where fines and forfeitures accounted for more than 10 percent of general fund revenues, and a few states stand out: Oklahoma, Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina, as well as the eastern half of Texas and the entire mid-Atlantic seaboard. Watch your speed limit there! And if the curb has any color of paint on it, maybe consider parking elsewhere just to be safe.

Is there any kind of solution?

Well, local governments are just filling their coffers using the path of least resistance. If we want them to continue to provide the services they do and chill out with the fines, well, money has to come from somewhere else. So it’s a simple choice: Either tax people another way, cut services… or just keep enforcing the speed traps.