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Traffic Ticket Fines - It's Not All About the Money

Post Date:11/01/2019

Traffic Officer on motorcycleAs a supervisor in charge of the Traffic Unit, I talk to community members every day about the traffic safety concerns they have in their neighborhood and their desire for more enforcement. Before the conversation ends, many will sweeten the pot by saying something along the lines of, “The City will rake in money with all the tickets the officers can write.” 

This idea that police departments write traffic citations in order to increase the City’s coffers is so common that it has become a generally accepted fact. But is it really true? Well, let’s take a look at the numbers here in Hillsboro. The amount of money the City actually gets is not as much as you might think. 

Tickets, when initially issued, generally range between $115 to $440, with most citations issued at the $115 or $165 level. So, let’s say a driver is issued a $165 citation for driving 45 mph in a 30 mph speed zone. For every traffic ticket issued, regardless of the amount, the City must send the first $50 to the State of Oregon. Washington County gets its piece of the pie with the next $16. In this particular example, the City will receive $99, which goes into the General Fund. 

This past fiscal year (2018-19), the City received $458,912 from 4,549 traffic citations issued. That doesn’t seem too bad for a revenue stream, right?  However, because we issue traffic tickets, we are required to have a court which allows cited drivers the opportunity to contest the citations. This means we still have to pay for Municipal Court, which adjudicates all those traffic citations.

Our Municipal Court has a part-time judge and three full-time employees who process all the citations, issue subpoenas, produce the court docket, conduct hearings, collect fees, communicate with the Department of Motor Vehicles, as well as other citation-related tasks. This comes with a price tag of approximately $584,000, the Court’s operating budget. Even if you add in parking citation revenue, bringing the total revenue to $558,912, the City is still short about $25,000.

So, if writing traffic tickets is not the General Fund windfall that most people believe it is, why does the Police Department continue to issue them? The answer is simple. Safety. 

Numerous studies conducted throughout the United States and the world have conclusively established that conducting a vigorous traffic enforcement program reduces the number of traffic collisions within a city and makes the city safer, in general. One 2011 study found that issuing 100 extra tickets led to four fewer crashes and 6.7 fewer injuries (Makowsky and Stratmann, 2011).  Studies also show that using a mixed method of enforcement increases the extent of driver behavior change. This is why Hillsboro Police Traffic Officers use a variety of methods, including citations, written warnings and at-the-window education.

So, the next time you see that motor officer sitting on the side of the road watching for speeders, don’t imagine how much money s/he must be bringing into the City. Instead, imagine the traffic crash you avoided because s/he is making people think twice about risking everyone’s life around them due to unsafe driving behaviors.

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