Getting a traffic ticket in South Florida is becoming a lot less common.
Law enforcement agencies have been handing out fewer traffic citations over the past few years, resulting in declines not only in Broward and Palm Beach counties but statewide.
Officials can't point to one thing that may be causing the drop. But they suspect it's a combination of reasons: Tough economic times, periodic spikes in gas prices, less traffic overall and higher fines for traffic offenses.
The number of citations issued in Palm Beach County has gone down since 2008, when police handed out 431,416 tickets. Last year, authorities issued 369,299 traffic citations in the county compared to 398,607 in 2010.
Citations rose slightly in Broward County in 2011, after falling dramatically each year from 2007 to 2010.
Police, state troopers and Broward Sheriff's deputies issued 482,621 tickets in 2011, up from 475,364 in 2010 but down from 564,458 in 2007.
It mirrors a steady decline statewide since 2007 from 5,273,251 citations issued to 4,322,042 in 2011.
The drop in traffic tickets follows the downward trend in other traffic data. Traffic crashes have been declining as traffic on roads has been going down. A struggling economy has meant fewer people on the road as people have lost jobs and curtailed shopping, eating out or going to the movies.
Lower travel levels could generate fewer citations, said Steven Polzin, mobility policy director for the University of South Florida's Center for Urban Transportation Research.
"One might argue that less congestion might reduce risk-taking behavior ... suggesting citations could reduce even more than traffic levels — but not much more," he wrote in an email.
The period also has seen spikes in gas prices.
"The peak travel times are centered around fuel prices," said Florida Highway Patrol Lt. Tim Frith. "When gas prices get closer to $4 a gallon, that impacts middle-class families. It changes their minds about driving."
Another hit to the pocketbook could be motivating South Florida drivers to behave themselves on the road.
"Maybe people are driving slower because they can't afford the tickets," said Boca Raton Police Officer Sandra Boonenberg. "Maybe officers are writing fewer tickets because they're aware of the economic impact."
In 2009, the Florida Legislature increased or added new fees for traffic offenses. The fine for driving 15 mph to 19 mph over the speed limit increased to $233 from $198.
And many drivers are fighting those citations. Doug Leifert, a South Florida traffic ticket lawyer, said his firm's business is booming despite the drop in citations because people are trying to avoid or delay paying fines.
"They're steep and they're due in 30 days," Leifert said. "It may be the total number of citations is down, but the number of people going to court is going up. More people are willing to go to court because of the cost."
While traffic citations are down across the board, some traffic transgressions are bucking the trend.
DUI violations increased 7 percent in Palm Beach County between 2010 and 2011, and red light violations spiked 30 percent during the same time thanks to red light cameras. In Broward, red-light violations increased 75 percent.
But some law enforcement officials are hoping an overall drop in traffic tickets means drivers are getting the message about driving safely.
"I'd like to believe it's because people are practicing safe driving skills and following traffic laws," said Fort Lauderdale Police Detective Travis Mandell.
The Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office hands out more tickets by far than any other law enforcement agency. The number of citations from that agency dropped from 169,105 in 2010 to 164,256 in 2011.
"I think that this is the result of PBSO's thorough and constant enforcement of traffic laws," said Lt. Michael Reardon, of PBSO's traffic division. "The public now is aware that we want them to drive in a safe and cautious manner and will enforce the necessary infractions to ensure that they do so."
But not all law enforcement agencies produced fewer tickets.
For instance, the number of tickets issued by FHP troopers in Broward County has climbed each year since 2008 while BSO deputies wrote fewer tickets each year since 2008.
For the BSO, it's not the quantity of tickets but the quality that is stressed to deputies who conduct traffic enforcement, said Col. Lou Cavallo.
Deputies in 17 districts countywide regularly analyze crash data and focus patrols on trouble spots. If an intersection shows up with a high number of crashes caused by red-light running, Cavallo said, then tickets should reflect the underlying cause of accidents vs. unrelated infractions such as driving with expired tags.
"If traffic crashes are going down, that's our goal," Cavallo said.
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