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Are Traffic Penalties in the Nation Increasing, and Do They Actually Save Lives?

Between 25 million and 50 million traffic tickets are issued in the United States every year, estimates the National Motorists Association, bringing in billions of dollars. Costs of these tickets, like costs for fuel, vehicles and insurance, are rising, leading to steep penalties in most states.

Routine traffic tickets can cost from $75 to $300 or more depending on the state.

In Illinois, for instance, new laws were put in place in 2005 to keep drivers from speeding in construction zones. Under the enhanced penalties:

  • First-time work zone speeders would be fined $375 ($125 of that would go to pay off-duty State Troopers to provide added enforcement in construction or maintenance zones)

  • Two-time offenders would be fined $1,000, including a $250 surcharge to hire Troopers, and the loss of their license for 90 days

  • Drivers who hit a worker are subject to up to a $10,000 fine and 14 years in prison

The tickets can even be issued by mail, as specially equipped vans were introduced to take photographs of speeding drivers.

Drivers in Hawaii may also face higher penalties this year. Lawmakers are looking to introduce a 50 percent surcharge on traffic fines to give county police departments millions of dollars to recruit and retain officers. In 2004 alone, Hawaii collected $15.8 million in traffic fines. Based on this amount, a 50 percent surcharge would bring in $7.9 million.

And, according to a report from the Chief Justice's Commission on Indigent Defense in Georgia, the state's traffic penalties may be "by far the harshest in the nation." First offenders can face up to a $1,000 fine and a year in prison for any moving violation. Thirty-three states impose only fines for a person's first speeding offense, while a few other states limit jail time to six months. Fines for routine traffic citations in most states range from $75 to $300 or more.

Do Traffic Tickets Save Lives?

Most would generally agree that most of the traffic stops and fines, as inconvenient and frustrating as they may be, would be worth it if they actually saved lives. Traffic accidents kill more than 1 million people, and permanently disable another 25 million, worldwide each year.

So Donald A. Redelmeier of the University of Toronto and Robert J. Tibshirani of Stanford University conducted a study of more than 10 million licensed drivers in the Canadian province of Ontario to determine if traffic tickets actually do make a difference.

"We looked at the month prior to a fatal accident, and the number of traffic convictions, and then the same month in the year before," said Tibshirani, a statistician. "What we found was that there were fewer tickets in the month before a fatal accident than there were a year before, and that suggests there's a protective effect of having a ticket."

Traffic citations caused fatal accidents to decrease by 35 percent, according to one study.

The researchers found that fatal accidents declined by 35 percent because of traffic citations. It appears, then, that people do drive more carefully after receiving a ticket. However, the cautious driving only lasted for a maximum of four months after the ticket, the researchers pointed out -- then driving went back to normal.

Most People Agree They Should Have Been Pulled Over

As it turns out, most drivers stopped (almost 84 percent, according to a nationwide survey) thought they had been stopped for legitimate reasons. Only 1 percent of the nearly 17 million drivers pulled over in 2002 felt that police had used or threatened excessive force.

Do You Know the Speed Limit?

The 2002 nationwide survey found that speeding was the most common reason why people were pulled over, accounting for nearly 55 percent of traffic stops. Although certain states may vary slightly, speed limits on U.S. roads are typically as follows:

  • 25-30 mph on residential streets in cities and towns

  • 35-45 mph on major arterial roads in urban and suburban areas

  • 50-65 mph on major divided highways inside cities

  • 45-65 mph on rural two-lane roads

  • 55-70 mph on non- Interstate highways and rural expressways

  • 65-75 mph on rural Interstate highways

If you would like details on specific limits for your state, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has up-to-date speed limit information.

Top Traffic Safety Tips

You can avoid being pulled over in the first place by being a safe, defensive driver. This means staying alert, concentrating on the task at hand, and following the tips below:

  • Always wear your seatbelt

  • Obey the speed limit -- don't drive too fast or too slow

  • Avoid tailgating

  • Don't be an aggressive driver

  • Use your turn signals when you're changing lanes, and be sure to turn your head and check the blind spot

  • Stay in your lane, don't drift over the line

  • Allow other drivers to merge safely

  • Stop completely at stop signs

  • Don't block intersections

  • Don't drink and drive

Recommended Reading

The Safest & Least-Safe Cars of 2006

What to Do & Know if You Are in an Auto Accident (Includes a Checklist Everyone Should Print Out)


Illinois Department of Transportation

The Honolulu Advertiser: Traffic Fines May Cost Up to 50 Percent More

Fulton County Daily Report

ABC News: Do Traffic Tickets Save Lives?

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