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Mobility Justice

How Some Traffic Fines and Fees Can Make Our Roads More Dangerous

A new book explores why America's revenue-focused approach to traffic policing isn't making streets safer, while harming the vulnerable people who get caught in its trap.

12:01 AM EDT on July 31, 2023

Photo: Police 1

Editor's note: This article is the second in an ongoing series on the new book, "Cars and Jails: Freedom Dreams, Debt and Carcerality." Read part one here and part three here.

The safe streets movement has long called for accountability for dangerous drivers — and for fixing dangerous transportation systems. But a new book argues that America's approach to traffic policing isn't truly designed with safety in mind because it's fueling a dangerous carceral cycle that may actually leave our communities more deadly, car-dependent, and oppressive to us all, especially the most vulnerable.

As part of their new book, "Cars and Jails: Freedom Dreams, Debt and Carcerality," researchers Julie Livingston and Andrew Ross added to the growing body of literature about revenue-driven policing on American roads, and the sprawling web of fines, fees, and forfeitures that motorists face when they're caught committing roadway crimes.

Some of those consequences do help deter dangerous driving behaviors, like red-light running or speeding on roads designed to slow motorists down — at least when those laws are actually enforced. But often, some of the harshest penalties fall on people who didn't put other road users at much risk of a crash at all, or who followed dangerous road design cues that tacitly encouraged them to treat neighborhood streets like highways.

“There are absolutely traffic violations that need to be policed in order to enhance safety; we take them very, very seriously," stressed Livingston. "Cars are massive pieces of steel hurtling down the road at a high speeds, and we don't want anybody to get hurt by them. But there’s a vast welter of traffic fines that doesn’t really have a lot to do with it enhancement of public safety. We've talked to people who've been pulled over for low tire pressure while driving 20 miles an hour through a neighborhood of Brooklyn. What does that have to do with public safety?”

'No discernable relationship to public safety'

In some ways, Livingston and Ross argue, extractive fines and extreme police harassment for even the most minor vehicle violations have been an integral part of motordom since its beginning, particularly for the people of color who shoulder an overwhelming majority of both burdens. The authors say that "revenue policing" really ballooned, though, following the tax revolts of the 1970s and '80s, when many progressive taxes were rescinded and governments were forced to take on massive bonds to provide basic public amenities.

To service — and, eventually, collateralize — those debts, municipalities turned to criminalizing and fining the people on their roads instead, all while directing bond revenues towards autocentric infrastructure and away from public transit projects that give residents an alternative to driving and all the carceral costs that come with it.

"Scattershot tactics [like speed traps] have mushroomed in recent decades into a more systematic model for funding the general operating budgets of jurisdictions, large and small, with little or no discernable relationship … to public safety," the authors wrote.

Today, much of America's $4 trillion municipal bond load is directly backed by what banks believe will remain a stable stream of money extracted from road users by police and the courts.

'A cascade of fees and surcharges'

And that stream has many tributaries.

Livingston and Ross point out that "if an initial flat fine for a parking or moving violation is not paid immediately, it is likely to be beefed up by a mandatory surcharge, followed by late penalties, interest on the unpaid debt, and collection fees — ballooning into a sum far beyond the reach of those already straining to make ends meet."

If a motorist receives probation for a low-level traffic violation, meanwhile, more than a thousand courts across the country will allow her to be placed under the supervision of a for-profit probation company that will charge her a large monthly surcharge on top of any fines she owes — an "offender-funded" model that's sold as a way to save taxpayers money, but that Ross and Livington say actually just provides "the muscle to shake down offenders for the fines and fees owed to the court."

In 33 states and the District of Columbia, license suspensions have also become a frequent shakedown tactic aimed at prodding desperate drivers to hurry up and pay their debts. Livingston and Ross point out that a whopping 11 million motorists had lost their driving privileges not because a judge deemed them too dangerous to get behind the wheel after a specific act of roadway violence, but because they were simply too poor to pay their legal financial obligations.

These nearly-unpayable penalties often spur other crimes, too — which, for revenue-focused carceral systems, means even more opportunities for governments to extract money from offenders.

Because so many Americans live in car-dependent places, a lot of drivers with suspended licenses have no choice but to keep driving anyway — and if they hit someone, they're far more likely to flee the scene and leave their victim to die. One Alabama study, meanwhile, found that 38 percent of people with fines for things like low-level vehicle code violations and non-payment of extortionate court fees committed a potentially more dangerous crime like selling drugs, illegal sex work, or robbery to raise the money. And if any of these crimes lead to a court date that gets missed, the driver can be thrown in jail for contempt.

Add it all up, and one 2015 multistate survey cited in "Cars and Jails" found that formerly incarcerated people owed an average of $13,607 for court-related fines and fees alone. 

"[As] police were drafted as de facto debt collectors and traffic courts more than earned their keep by speedily processing cases and levying fines and fees, public safety — the ostensible mission of law enforcement and the traffic courts — faded away in the rear view mirror,” the authors wrote.  

Hope for reform?

Many of the extractive policies that Livingston and Ross describe have been the targets of reform efforts in recent years — though progress has been slow. A 2019 Supreme Court decision extended the Excessive Fines Clause of the U.S. constitution to states, but "offered little guidance as to what should be considered excessive," and failed to place "much of a check on the chain reaction that leads to these much greater, life-altering repercussions," like mounting court fees if an initial fine can't be paid.

And no state has yet to implement the kind of progressive "day fines" system that have been in place in countries like Finland for over a century. Under those schemes, motorists are charged penalties scaled to a fixed multiple of their daily wages, with community service typically assessed to motorists with no income at all, and wealthy drivers paying as 121,000 euros for a single incident of speeding, as one Finn did in a record-setting incident last month.

“For people who can afford the fines, they’re not really not a deterrent [to dangerous driving]," added Ross. "But if you're broke, or of limited means, a $200 traffic fine is a huge, a huge sum to pay. … We were surprised to find out how easily that kind of initial traffic fine can ultimately lead to a cascade of additional fees and surcharges."

Ross and Livingston say to truly address the harms of car culture, advocates must expand their notion of what roadway harm looks like beyond crashes alone to include the devastating carceral systems in which so many US residents become ensnared, even if they never endanger anyone else.

Or, as one of their interviewees, Randy Petersen succinctly put it: "During my 21 years as a police officer ... I never found an air freshener dangling from a rearview mirror to be the cause of highway carnage. ... Much of the traffic code criminalizes things that do not contribute much to roadway safety, which is almost universally the reason given for their enforcement."

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