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The town that stopped writing traffic tickets

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CarInsurance.com

Are American teens the worst-trained drivers in the world?

Speeders venturing off I-80 in northern California shouldn't get the wrong idea. The little city of Roseville, north of Sacramento, hasn't nixed traffic tickets altogether.

But it has cut the number of moving citations issued by a striking 84 percent, and no one's complaining.

Drivers received 1,317 traffic tickets in the first six months of 2011, compared with 8,236 during the same time last year, after city manager Ray Kerridge, a former engineer, said he wanted police to focus on long-term solutions and not feel pressured to write tickets. Nor did he want drivers to feel ambushed by speed traps.

Officers are now assigned dangerous areas and asked to be creative, consulting with community leaders and traffic engineers if need be.

"If collisions are high at one intersection, tell me how to solve that," Roseville Police Chief Daniel Hahn says. "It might be red lights, or erecting a median," or simply beefing up presence at certain hours.

"Well, the whole time you're doing that -- that you're not writing tickets -- you're solving the problem. You're permanently solving the problem," Hahn says.

The results so far? The number of traffic accidents in Roseville, population 115,000, is down 7 percent in the first six months of this year already.

Fewer tickets. Fewer accidents. Cheaper insurance.

Why not do this everywhere?

Aren't traffic tickets all about safety?

In 1903, when New York City adopted William P. Eno's "Rules of the Road," the foundation of modern traffic protocol, the city immediately created a concurrent battalion of police to enforce those rules. This was decades before the states began issuing driver's licenses, in the 1930s.

Still, it was wise thinking. Modern academic research supports the notion that drivers are far more likely to obey traffic laws when they fear getting caught. (Knowing how much your car insurance rates could rise is also a deterrent.)

The question is whether traffic tickets are the only solution. Or, as the budding example of Roseville indicates, might issuing more tickets even be the poorer option?

Given the toll of traffic accidents -- 33,000 deaths a year and at least $150 billion in associated annual costs -- even those who oppose aggressive enforcement measures don't want to risk road safety.

To an officer with a hammer, everything looks like a nail

Citations are needed, and "tickets are never going to go away," Hahn says. But citations often offer temporary relief only. "I don't think you can say, this is my solution to everything. You have to allow people to use their intelligence and be innovative."

The problem, say critics, is that tickets offer some attractive perks that can lead to overuse: namely, quick revenue for cash-strapped municipalities; and a simplistic way for police heads to supposedly measure an officer's work.

In many states, "ticket quotas" -- unofficially used for whatever reason -- are expressly outlawed. In some states, cities that collect too much in ticket revenue must relinquish the excess.

With an average cost of $120 to $150, the National Motorists Association estimates that tickets generate $4.5 billion to $6 billion annually.

"Every jurisdiction is hungry for money, and the way they can get it is they offer overtime, and the guys with the heavy pencils will get the overtime," says Casey Raskob, a New York traffic lawyer.

The speeding-ticket treadmill

Elected officials tend to deny fines are used to generate revenue; however, even objective research has supported the phenomenon.

Drivers don't like it. Citizens don't like it. But perhaps no one dislikes the push for traffic tickets more than police officers themselves, who say the intricacy and delicacy of their job requires that they be allowed to select the best response for each situation. And issuing a ticket to meet department performance standards or city quotas is not always the best route to promoting public safety, police say.

(Police unions have filed multiple lawsuits against the practice in municipalities around the country. In April, a jury awarded $2 million to two Los Angeles patrolmen who said they were retaliated against by police brass after complaining about the practice.)

"Not all violations are created equal, and not all violators are created equal," says Jeffrey Silva, a former patrol officer who now serves as a detective lieutenant and a lawyer in Massachusetts.

"An experienced driver in good weather conditions, in a car with good tires with no one on the road, going 20 mph over the speed limit, is not the same as a 17-year-old with no experience, with bald tires in the rain, with school in session," he says. "And there are a million gradations between those two scenarios."

As the police chief in Roseville emphasized: The ultimate goal is public safety.

Even after a traffic stop is made, sometimes an officer's message is better received with a warning and an explanation, rather than a $200 fine.

"You may get more value out of that," says Silva. "The driver thinks, wow, he really cares about my safety, he didn't give me a ticket. Every citizen contact is an opportunity for the officer to advance or erode community relations."

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