Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Do 40 Tickets Do Good?

40 tickets. As a special detail of Arlington County traffic enforcement, police officers issued 40 citations at the corner of N. Glebe Road and N. Carlin Springs Drive over 30 days, starting in mid-July. The police spent extra time at that intersection citing drivers for speed, illegal U-turns and other traffic or vehicle offenses.

"Usually they do like a one hour block” during morning and evening rush-hours, said Lt. William Griffith, of the police Special Operations Section. The special detail grew from citizen meetings with county staff about pedestrian safety at that intersection.

Certainly police presence slows drivers down, but when do the drivers speed up again?

“As soon as they don’t see [the police],” said John Townsend, of AAA MidAtlantic, and then he chuckled a little. With selective enforcement of speed, “the benefit is short-term.”

He cited a couple traffic studies to support his claim. One, written by researchers at the University of Maryland’s medical school earlier this year, reported that citations do not stop people from continuing to speed.

“Our findings indicate that a single speeding citation has limited effects on changing drivers’ likelihood of receiving subsequent speeding citations....this study suggests that speeding citations have inadequate deterrent effects in the context of the current law enforcement system,” the report stated. "Drivers who received a speeding citation during May 2002 had almost twice the risk of receiving a speeding citation during the follow-up period [one year] than drivers who did not receive a speeding citation during that month.”

The other, written by medical researchers in Ottawa Canada in 2003, found that speeding tickets lower the mortality rate for drivers significantly, in the first month or two after the ticket is given, but the benefit is gone after about three months.

Still, the Maryland study seemed to point to the idea that people slow down if they fear the police are nearby. The report stated, “The severity of the punishment does not seem to be the deterring factor to slow speeders; the deterrent seems to be whether the driver thinks he or she will be caught at all.”

"We try to go back and spot check as well,” said Lt. Griffith. "How often we go back, I don't know."

“The problem with the county is that we get flooded with requests" to have the motor unit come out on a special detail, especially for speed traps, he said. The officers in the motor unit, however, tend to go back to places, such as the intersection of Glebe and Carlin Springs, if they think they can “be seen, make a difference,” he said.

"They enjoy writing tickets," he said, laughing.

[I don't intend to imply that the studies mentioned are the last word on this. The link to the Stanford study only references a press release since the only copy I could find of the full study was in my college’s library database. For readers here to see that copy, I would have to give all of you my login name and password. The college frowns on that. –ST.]

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