The North Dakota Supreme Court said cities can’t levy traffic fines that are higher than the state’s so the city of Grand Forks and other cities maybe lobbying the Legislature to change the law so that they can.
The rationale, as City Council member Curt Kreun articulated last night, is cities need these tools to deter speeding and other unsafe behavior.
This sounds right but all the ludicrous things government has done in the name of security since Sept. 11 — except for the things it’s supposed to do — has taught me not to take these statements at face value.
Studies suggest that speeding is dangerous when a driver goes significantly faster or slower than the prevailing speed. In one study, significant means more than 15 mph. Note that slower drivers are also a hazard. If we follow this to its logical conclusions, we should also levy fines against very slow drivers.
You may think that the prevailing speed is influenced by the speed limit. It is not. As this study notes, most people drive at speeds that they feel is fast enough but still gives them control of their vehicle. Speed limits don’t change that:
For years, traffic engineering texts have supported the conclusion that motorists ignore unreasonable speed limits. Both formal research and informal operational observations conducted over many years indicate that there is very little change in the mean or 85th percentile speed as the result of raising or lowering the posted speed limit on urban and rural nonlimited access highways.
The study found this conclusion to be true:
When the limits were lowered, a greater percentage of drivers exceeded the new limits. When speed limits were raised, more drivers were in compliance with the speed limits. Again, these figures do not represent a shift in driver behavior, but a change in how noncompliance is measured, i.e., from the posted speed limit.
Do speeding tickets change driver behavior? The answer is no.
Drivers who receive speeding citations are at increased risk of receiving subsequent speeding citations, suggesting that speeding citations have limited effects on deterrence in the context of the current traffic enforcement system.
The only people speeding tickets deter are female drivers who are generally considered by the insurance industry to be the safest drivers. For the less safe drivers, namely teens and men, speeding tickets have little impact. The perverse consequence is that heavy fines will only penalize drivers who threaten public safety the least and do nothing to stop those that threaten public safety the most.
In other words, Curt’s argument is sound in theory but doesn’t hold much water.
I should say that I’m deterred by speeding tickets. I would just as soon arrive late as give up money I’ve worked hard for. However, that’s because I am an old man, or I feel like it anyway. When I was younger, I sped all the time whether in North Dakota where the tickets are cheap or in Minnesota where they are not. Why? Because I was in a hurry and because I felt that if I paid attention to speed traps and followed fast drivers, I had a reasonable chance of escaping a ticket. This is somewhat true because I’ve only ever gotten tickets when I wasn’t paying attention. Nowadays, I’m too lazy to watch out for speed traps and it seems much easier to just stick close to the speed limit, which usually means somewhere within 5 to 10 mph.
There’s a far more intelligent way to slow people down than these asinine speeding tickets: Redesign the roads. In the traffic engineering world, this is known as traffic calming. This could mean anything from speed bumps to traffic islands to narrower lanes.
Here in town, parents have complained about drivers speeding in school zones and endangering their kids. Drivers do need to be careful but there would be fewer problems if the streets weren’t so blasted wide it feels like you could drive a lot faster.
I used to live near 17th Avenue South and, once in a while, when I come back from SuperTarget I’d see one of those "you are going this fast" radar gun-cum-display boards that the police have set up to remind people they’re going too fast. Well, that’s just stupid. That road is so wide I always feel like I should be going 40 mph and have to restrain myself for the public good. Why design a street that encourages fast driving and then put up a speed limit to fine them for it?
Yes, the street might be narrower if there were cars parked on the street and there might be when there’s a big game at the soccer field there. But most of the time there aren’t. There are also no lane markers dividing the parking area from the rest of the street so it looks like you’ve got this enormous lane big enough to drive a tank through.
Downtown is where you’ll find good examples of natural traffic calming. The streets are narrower and there are tons of cars parked on the street. Even though there’s plenty of room, I always feel like I’ve got to watch myself or I’ll nick one of those cars or squash some pedestrian stepping out between them. I don’t even know what the speed limit is. I just know I don’t want to go fast.
Perhaps before the city lobbies state lawmakers, it should put more of these traffic calming features in place first. Otherwise, it would look as if city leaders just want to make money. Of course, if they were using the fines to pay for the traffic calming features…
Just in case you wanted to read arguments and counter arguments in the Supreme Court case, here they are at the court’s Web site. Here’s the Supreme Court ruling. I don’t know why it’s not on the court Web site yet.
Notice that the court was answering a "certified question" from the district court. What this means is the lower court couldn’t figure out exactly what to do. This is different from an appeal in which the lower court does make a ruling but the losing party asks the Supreme Court to overrule the lower court. The case appears to be unusual because state law appears to be vague on whether home rule cities have to adhere to state traffic fines or not.
For the speeding fines, look here in the Century Code. It’s under 39-06.1-06 subsection 3. This goes on top of whatever is in subsection 2 so you’re never gonna get a $5 ticket.