TLDR: Speeding tickets are an unsafe, uneconomical, and unethical way of raising revenues without taxes and by fighting them you prevent that from happening.
A few weeks ago I got pulled over in what could only be described as a routine speed trap. I was on my way to dinner with a friend in a little town called Solon. I got off the expressway, and was on a state route that started off at 35 mph. I didn’t realize it dropped to 25 in a little town called The Village of Oakwood, and of course there was a cop right there waiting to snag me.
This has happened to me (and everyone else) a dozen times, and every time I just called the phone number and paid the ticket. That’s easily the most economical use of my time. A ticket is something like $150, plus probably a couple hundred more when you count in the raised car insurance rate that will result. So let’s say the total cost is $350. It wouldn’t need to consume much of my time to make it not worth fighting, monetarily, even if I knew I would somehow win. And you never know you’ll win. In fact you know you probably won’t.
But I am nothing if not a man of principle, and speeding tickets of this kind are, in principle, abominable. See what happens is little podunk townships like The Village of Oakwood want to have a nice town. They want to have nice schools, and nice parks. They want the garbage collection and snow plows to run on time. But of course the residents don’t want to pay for it, because having a nice town is expensive.
So they erect a speed trap. They drop a speed limit by 10 mph and then essentially tax passing motorists. This works especially well if they’re located between two spots people actually want to be, because then the speeding tickets won’t be issued to locals. They’re almost always on a highway or a state route as a result.
Speed traps are problematic for citizens for a few reasons, the largest of which is that they are a safety issue. It sounds counter-intuitive, but lowering speed limits can make roads unsafe. What causes accidents isn’t necessarily high speed, but high speed differentials. Research conducted by the Florida Department of Transportation showed that the percentage of accidents actually caused by speeding is very low, 2.2 percent. An expressway on which everyone is traveling 65 mph is fairly safe. A road on which half the people are traveling 25 mph and half the people are traveling 40 mph is dangerous.
People tend to drive at a safe speed regardless of speed limit. Studies show that raising the speed limit of a highway, for instance, barely alters the speed at which people drive. Traffic engineers know that know matter what speed is posted, about 85% of people will travel at or below safe speed.
In Ohio (and many other states) speed limits are proscribed by state law. Localities can deviate from them, but to lower them they are supposed to have a traffic engineering study showing that the legally proscribed speed limit is unsafe. This is quite simple, engineers just measure the speeds of passing motorists and set the new speed limit such that 85% of people are at or below it. You’ve probably seen engineers do this on the side of the road with a device mounted on a tripod and didn’t know what it was.
Speed traps cause accidents. Accidents cause injury, and death. Seriously. By setting speeds artificially low to collect revenue, townships are literally maiming and killing people. Let that sink in. They’re funding their schools by physically harming passing motorists. I’m not being hyperbolic.
Then there’s the economic damage. Slowing traffic wastes time, and time is money. The speeding tickets add points to licenses, which is great for car insurance companies, but bad for those of us buying the insurance. Car repair bills from the non-fatal accidents, hospital bills from when people get injured. The economic impact is a multiple of the tax revenue generated. Instead of taxing the citizens for a buck, they’re doing $5 worth of economic damage and getting $1 of it. Why? Because nobody has to vote to approve it, whereas a tax hike is hard to get passed on a ballot.
On top of that, revenue-based speed enforcement fosters a hatred of the police. For most Americans, traffic tickets are pretty much the only interaction they have with cops. There’s a reason even middle-class white people who’ve never had even a misdemeanor say “fuck the police” when I tell them what’s happening. I have a couple cop friends, and they tell me they hate writing speeding tickets for that reason, but their job security depends on it. Most people become officers to protect and serve. Nobody gets into policing because they want to issue tickets and harass passing motorists. But it fattens the town budget, and therefore their police department’s budget and their salary.
Because speeding tickets are entirely about revenue, they rely solely on your compliance. Unless you’re going highly in excess of safe speeds, a ticket doesn’t cost very much. In Ohio they max out at $150 (I think) which has to cover the time the officer spent writing the ticket, the time the prosecutor spends on your case, the time the judge and all of the other courtroom personnel spend, etc. Pretty much by challenging a ticket at all you’ve turned it into an unprofitable venture for the city. If you just plead no contest and pay your ticket, the city makes $150 for very little. (Basically ten minutes of an officer’s time.) If you fight it, they lose money. But you do too, and they know that. They are relying on you to be selfish.
To put that another way, if everyone started challenging their tickets, the whole system would crumble. Hell, if probably ten percent of people challenged the ticket, the system would shut down. Insurance rates will drop. Commute times will be shortened. Accidents will be prevented. Lives would literally be saved. Think about that. If we all challenged unreasonable speeding tickets actual lives would be saved.
So while I realize I’m not exactly Dr. Martin Luther King for fighting this one, I consider it my civic duty. Some day I hope to be in a position to end speed traps and revenue-based traffic enforcement altogether. But for now all I can do is fight this ticket. I’ll keep updating here as I do so about how it went.