Sunday, July 02, 2006

Traffic lawyers are really just tax lawyers

Some of my traffic ticket callers seem upset at the injustice involved. They have a variety of complaints: weren't really speeding, others were going faster, police drive fast or use cell phones when they're driving, etc.

My personal opinion about this is simple. This system has nothing to do with justice or traffic safety. It's just another tax - a particularly unfair one, but still a tax.

If traffic enforcement were really about safety, then it would be much more focused on the most dangerous areas -- where there are lots of pedestrians, intersections, roads with disproportionate number of accidents, etc.

If it were really about safety, then cops wouldn't speed or talk on their cell phones while driving. I'm on the road a lot, and I see cops speeding all the time, and they're always talking on cell phones.

One caveat here -- I think most cops really believe in the child seat laws. When I'm negotiating with them, speeding tickets are always routine - even the high speeds. But a lot of Troopers get upset and are harder to deal with when the client had a kid out of a car seat. As an aside here, if those seats are so good (and I believe they are), then how come my seat doesn't have the extra straps?

Anyway, traffic enforcement is really about one thing and one thing only. Revenue. I've seen newspaper articles where towns brag about how much revenue their court generates. Funny. I didn't know that was the purpose of the courts or the police. The one I'm thinking of (Colonie a few years ago) had something like $500K in revenue. Okay, so your police budget is something like $4 million (not including Troopers and deputy sheriffs, who aren't on the town budget), and you spend probably another couple million on court staff and facilities, and your revenue is $500K? Not bragging material.

I keep running away from my point. Look, this is not about justice or safety. It's about revenue. The enforcement of traffic violations is simply a tax. This tax is unfair in many ways.

It's not a progressive tax -- traffic fines are the same whether you're rich or poor. Wealthier drivers are more likely to hire a lawyer and keep their fines/taxes down, so in reality it's a little regressive. Traffic fines in New York are among the highest around, so it's particularly harsh. Imagine someone making $20K/year getting whacked on a 31 mph ticket in a construction zone. Maximum fines and assessments total about $1700, and that's before your insurance rates spike.

It's an arbitrary tax -- while nearly all of us speed at some point in a given year (studies show that 85% of drivers drive over the speed limit consistently), few of us actually get ticketed. It's the luck of the draw. I've slowed down quite a bit from my younger days, but I still have my moments, and I haven't been ticketed in several years (knock on wood).

So I'm really just a tax lawyer. I work on reducing your traffic taxes.

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