Police Enforcement of Traffic Laws: A Cost-Benefit Analysis

By Salzberg, Philip; Moffat, John | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, April 1999 | Go to article overview

Police Enforcement of Traffic Laws: A Cost-Benefit Analysis


Salzberg, Philip, Moffat, John, The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin


A Cost-benefit Analysis

Enforcement of traffic laws remains an essential component of traffic safety. Traffic laws serve many purposes - primarily to discourage unsafe driving and to remove from the roads those drivers who pose a hazard. By reducing such violations, fewer motor vehicle accidents may occur.

Effective traffic enforcement depends on the allocation of sufficient staff and resources. However, traffic duties must compete with other police tasks for funding because budgetary allocations often tilt toward property crimes and violent criminal activities. Additionally, the media attention to criminal activity commands public interest.

Police budget decisions often reflect the assumption that the public remains more concerned about intentional criminal acts than about the accidental property damage and injury resulting from motor vehicle collisions (i.e., the police should focus on catching the criminals rather than writing speeding tickets). Thus, it remains difficult for a police agency, with a finite budget, to assign resources to the prevention of motor vehicle violations.

This assumption, however, fails to take into account the fact that the amount of damage, pain, and suffering caused by traffic law violators involved in collisions far exceeds that of criminal acts. To a degree, the public has become accustomed to traffic collisions and accepts these losses as normal.

Furthermore, it seems that experts often do not take into account the relative costs and benefits of traffic versus criminal enforcement. Societal costs of traffic collisions are very high. A key consideration when discussing the cost/benefit of traffic law enforcement remains the fact that it generates revenue for a jurisdiction - whereas general crime enforcement usually does not.

Those administrators who make police work assignments often ignore the revenue implications of traffic law enforcement. Police agencies do not directly receive the revenues derived from such enforcement; instead, these proceeds typically are placed into the city's general fund account. A police chief easily can shift an officer from traffic to general duties with no impact on the police budget. However, a direct Joss of revenue to the city's general account would occur due to the loss of revenue generated from the tickets that the officer would have written. In many cases, the revenue from the tickets issued would have offset the costs associated with keeping this officer in the field. While the assignment shift has no effect on the police budget, it has the same negative effect on the general fund as hiring a new employee because of the loss of revenue from the citations.

An important empirical question arises concerning the amount of revenue generated by traffic enforcement. If the revenue from traffic citations received and retained by a jurisdiction equaled or exceeded that jurisdiction's cost of putting a traffic officer on the road, the issue of diverting resources from crime to traffic could become moot.

The Study

The authors conducted the study in Spokane, Washington. The Washington Traffic Safety Commission funded a full-time traffic officer dedicated to traffic law enforcement in one corridor of the city. With the assistance and cooperation of the Spokane Police Department and the Spokane Municipal Court, the authors used a system to track the citations from the individual officer to the municipal court in order to identify the citation revenue received by the court and retained by the city. Periodically, the police departments sent copies of the written citations to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, where the authors entered information from these citations into a database. After 3 to 4 months, the authors sent a listing of citation numbers and driver's names from each batch of citations to the court. There, employees retrieved case dispositions, fine assessments, and fine payments from the court record system for a 1-year period and entered these items on the citation listing. …

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