News Story

Speed Limit Reform Died Last Year but May be Revived

Government rakes in millions from tickets

Figuring out how much government makes from speeding tickets is a fool’s game. Just ask the National Motorists Association, the one group whose mission it is to know.

“We will not be unwitting cannon fodder for self-serving government programs, over-bearing police departments or greedy courts,” states its website.

Michigan Capitol Confidential contacted the NMA to see if it had tallies on speeding ticket revenue in Michigan. Speed limit reform bills in both chambers failed to make it out of committee last session but are expected to reappear this session.

Jim Walker, the executive director of the NMA, says that the proposals offered last year “would be the best speed limit laws in the nation. They would wipe out virtually every speed trap.” He also called the original form of last session’s proposals “pretty scientific.”

Lawmakers have heard numerous complaints since Public Act 85 of 2006 went into effect. The intent of that law was to eliminate the random setting of speed limits that fail to consider the 85th percentile of speed in free-flowing traffic. According to traffic engineers, when speed limits are set scientifically, they eliminate “speed variation,” a factor that can increase the risk of a crash.

The law requires traffic departments to use speed studies in determining limits. Alternately, they may use a formula based on road “access points.” Today, there are a number of local and state roads with outdated limits, kept in place by a number of loopholes. Municipalities, the auto insurance industry, and pedestrian and bicycle activists have fought higher speed limits.

Gary Biller, the NMA’s president, believes much of the opposition has to do with money. He believes government and auto insurers profit greatly from speed traps.

“Most states don’t have a central collection point for traffic ticket data and it would be cumbersome and costly to collect such data though public records requests from the hundreds, if not thousands of jurisdictions that issue citations,” said Biller.

Also hampering an accurate estimate is the wheeling and dealing that takes place when motorists try to challenge their speed tickets. Sometimes prosecutors agree to a non-moving “zero-point” violation if the motorist agrees to pay a fine without a court hearing. In Michigan, a ticket for going 11 to 15 miles over the limit results in 3 points on a driver’s license. Motorists face huge surcharges from auto insurers for license points.

Additionally, some cities don’t report tickets to the state, in order to keep more revenue for themselves. That happened with this reporter in one Michigan city. An officer said if the ticket was paid without challenge, the violation would not be reported to the Secretary of State. The ticket was not challenged, but paid in full, and according to a license check, never reported to the state.

Biller says he could take an educated guess at Michigan’s speed ticket revenue based on a study of North Carolina done by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

Based on that study, Biller estimates that police write 95,000 to 110,000 moving violations a day. Assuming most violations are for speed and that most speed tickets cost a motorist between $110 and $135, government collects between $3.8 and $5.4 billion a year.

Breaking that down by Michigan’s population of 9.9 million people, Biller thinks the state could be collecting between $100 to $150 million per year from drivers.

Biller believes if there were more accurate data on ticket revenue, public opinion would change dramatically.

“More people would understand the multibillion dollar nature of the traffic enforcement industry. With that realization would come, one would hope, a deeper interest by the motoring public (and by extension, the media) to understand the proven engineering and behavioral patterns associated with the setting of speed limits. As more people became aware that most posted speed limits are 5 to 15 mph under the prevailing speed of traffic, and that the safest speed of travel is at or slightly above that prevailing speed, there would be a tremendous outcry for a national reform of speed limits,” said Biller.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.