WASHINGTON – Maryland State Police gave out 44 percent fewer tickets in 2000 than they did in 1997, even as traffic has increased, according to police statistics.
Police and traffic safety officials could not point to a single cause for the drop in tickets issued, but said increasing traffic congestion and a new program that targets problem areas have contributed to the drop.
Troopers “just can’t go out and write tickets for the sake of writing tickets,” said Lt. Clarence Bell, commander of traffic operations for Maryland State Police.
Statistics show the tickets fell 40 percent for drivers exceeding speed limits of 55 mph and higher, and they fell 49 percent drop in tickets at lower speed limits.
But police downplay the importance of the number of tickets, saying the best measure of traffic safety is the number of fatalities. Cpl. Rob Moroney, a state police spokesman, said highway deaths dropped 3 percent, from 610 to 598, between 1997 and 1999, the latest year for which figures were available.
During the same period, the number of vehicle miles traveled in the state rose by 5 percent, or 2.1 million miles, said David Buck of the Maryland State Highway Administration.
Moroney said that the increase in traffic may be one of reasons ticket- writing has dipped. As congestion increases, he said, more and more minor accidents occur, and more of a trooper’s time is taken up by attending to the accidents.
Moroney also pointed to the increasing length of rush hours in metropolitan areas of the state. He said troopers are unable to safely or effectively ticket speeders during the two or three hours of morning and evening congestion.
State police Sgt. Mike Hawkins said that congestion has made it harder for officers to work traditional speed enforcement spots — so-called “fishing holes” — because too much congestion makes it impossible for motorists to speed.
Hawkins said there are a number of new troopers on the road who have not been certified to use radar or other speed-sensing systems. He also said that a drop in federal grants may have cut into overtime funding for speeding enforcement.
Some troopers may have been diverted to other programs or priorities, such as bike patrols, DWI enforcement, or family violence programs, he said.
But both Bell and Moroney said there has been no drop in department funding or manpower during the four-year period. And Cpl. Kenny Oland said federal grants for traffic safety increased 20 percent from 1999 to 2000.
Bell said that, while there may be a drop in tickets, troopers are being utilized more effectively. Police have implemented a new program called Managing for Results, he said, which directs troopers to areas of concern, such as those with high accident or fatality rates.
But union officials said one reason for the ticket drop is that officers have too much else to do to focus on ticket-writing.
“Traffic enforcement is kind of a spare-time activity,” said Sgt. David Hammel, legislative chairman of the State Law Enforcement Officers Labor Alliance. “There’s only so many hours in the day.”
Hammel said troopers are frequently called away from speeding enforcement to deal with minor accidents.
Troopers also face other demands for their time.
“We handle a lot of calls for service in other counties,” outside the major metropolitan areas, Oland said. Hammel noted that only the “big seven” counties have their own police departments.
Hammel also pointed to the increase in the number of roads with a 65 mph speed limit, and said drivers were less likely to exceed a higher speed limit.
Myra Wieman, the Maryland spokeswoman for the American Automobile Association, said many drivers are figuring out how fast they can go without getting caught.
“I think more and more people are becoming aware of the difference between a posted speed limit and an enforced speed limit,” she said.
But as traffic volume increases, it becomes even more dangerous for troopers to make traffic stops. Hawkins said congestion and the loss of shoulder areas to construction combine to increase the danger.
Hammel had other reasons to call traffic stops “the most hazardous jobs our officers can be involved with.”
“When you stop a car in the middle of the night, in the middle of a cornfield. . .it’s an eerie feeling,” he said. But he said the danger has no effect on troopers’ willingness to enforce speed limits.