Are police handing out more tickets in this recession?

Police in North Carolina counties issued more tickets when their revenue declined, according to a recent study.

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Am I imagining things or are police departments handing out more tickets?

A morning run in September: A Waltham, Mass., cop lurks on a side road, ready to nab speeders. It's a favorite haunt, but at 5:45 a.m.? That's a first in my six years of predawn fitness.

One October evening: A police officer in neighboring Weston has parked his cruiser so far down a side lane that there's no way cars in the opposite highway lane could possibly spot him before he pounces.

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At least Massachusetts still relies on patrol cars to catch speeders. Some Arizona motorists are so angry at the state's widespread use of red-light cameras, which automatically generate tickets, that they're gathering signatures for a 2010 ballot initiative to ban them.

A battle over red-light cameras is also raging in College Station, Texas, where residents will vote Nov. 3 on whether to end the city's red-light camera program. Since the program began in 2008, it has registered 23,109 violations and collected more than $1.3 million in fines.

"We see evidence around the country, particularly with the camera stuff," that traffic violations are on the rise, says Jim Baxter, president of the National Motorists Association, a grass-roots organization with 5,000 members based in Waunakee, Wis.

So has stopping speeding become public safety issue number one? Or is generating income at a time when many state and local governments are cash-strapped bringing radar guns out en masse? You be the judge.

When two researchers looked at traffic tickets issued by North Carolina counties from 1990 to 2003, they found that the number of tickets went up the year after a county's revenue declined. Every 10 percent decline in revenue resulted in a 6.4 percent rise in tickets, they estimated in a groundbreaking study published earlier this year.

"We don't know empirically what's happening around the country," says Thomas Garrett, one of the study's authors and an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. But "it would seem reasonable as budgets become tighter there'd be this incentive for increased revenue through traffic tickets."

Not all police departments are issuing more tickets. Some have been cut back so much, they don't have the personnel. But for many, in the wake of the worst recession in decades, this may be the high-water mark for speeding and other traffic violations.

Be watchful out there.
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