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Editorial

Traffic fines as cash cow

It may be a good way to raise revenue, but planners should think carefully before imposing outrageous fines for relatively minor violations.

February 06, 2010

If you're caught running a red light in Los Angeles, be prepared to shell out $446, up from $271 eight years ago. Make a rolling right turn at a stoplight and the ticket comes to $381 -- more than double what it cost in 2008. Park at an expired meter, pay a $50 fine.

It's getting so a person can't even drive badly in this town anymore.


FOR THE RECORD:
Fines: A Feb. 6 editorial said the penalty for making a rolling right turn at a stoplight in Los Angeles is $381. It's $446. —

Officials have been jacking up traffic fines recently as a budget crunch encourages creative methods of raising municipal revenue. Not only are fines going up, but the city is considering ways to nab more people to pay them. Times staff writer Rich Connell reports that discussions are underway at City Hall to double the number of intersections outfitted with red-light cameras to 64. Meanwhile, L.A. and other cities are lobbying the Legislature to let them put the "boot" on cars when their owners have as few as three outstanding parking tickets, rather than the current minimum of five. By recovering more overdue ticket money, the city could raise an estimated $61 million.

The state wants a piece of the ticketing action too. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's budget proposal contains a novel scheme to adapt red-light cameras to bust drivers for speeding as well as running lights. Most of these systems have the ability to measure a vehicle's speed, but state law doesn't allow cities and counties to use them for speed citations. The governor wants to change that and send 85% of the ticket proceeds to Sacramento.

Raising traffic fines has become attractive to politicians because, unlike hiking taxes, it seldom attracts much opposition. That's OK by us, but it's possible to raise fines to the point that they're grossly disproportionate to the infraction. We're getting perilously close to that level in L.A., and in some cases have probably exceeded it.

As a matter of principle, it's usually smart to tax socially destructive behavior such as bad driving; not only are there social benefits (fewer accidents), but public services get an important source of funding, and people who object to paying can avoid doing so simply by driving more responsibly. But when punishments don't fit the crime, it encourages public cynicism and lawless behavior. For a low-income driver, a $500 traffic fine -- the cost of running a red light in L.A. when traffic school is factored in -- is a devastating expense. Some people will break more laws to avoid paying it.

There's some evidence that red-light cameras improve safety at intersections, so we're not bothered by plans to put up more. And if the city can collar parking ticket scofflaws and raise needed funds by booting cars more often, then boot away. Planners should think carefully, though, before imposing outrageous fines for relatively minor traffic violations.

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