Image by Elvert Barnes licensed under Creative Commons.

Trayon White, the new councilmember for DC's Ward 8, wants to end the District's practice of doubling traffic tickets if you don't pay after 30 days. “War on cars” rhetoric aside, I actually think there's merit to his proposal.

Today, traffic fines double after 30 days if the person who receives them doesn't pay or appeal. White's bill, which was also co-introduced by Robert White (at large), Anita Bonds (at-large), Jack Evans (ward 2), Mary Cheh (ward 3), and Kenyan McDuffie (ward 5) and cosponsored by David Grosso (at-large) and Charles Allen (ward 6), would end this practice for speed camera tickets, parking tickets, and any “standing, stopping, or pedestrian offense.”

Non-DC residents would still see their fines double; only District residents would get the reprieve.

Trayon White points out in his press release that DC has other ways of collecting on tickets, including reporting the debt to credit bureaus and requiring you to pay outstanding tickets before renewing a car registration or when filing taxes (though only for DC-registered cars and DC taxpayers, which might be a good rationale for keeping the doubling for non-residents).

Why this might be sensible policy

A growing body of research says that if you want to deter people from breaking a certain law, certainty is a stronger force than severity. In other words, if I know I'll get a $20 ticket 10% of the time if I run a red light, my “expected value” of running the red light is $2. If I will get a $200 ticket 1% of the time, my expected value is the same. But in the real world, the first scenario will do more to deter me from running the light than the second.

The evident purpose of doubling the fines is to get people to actually pay their tickets and not ignore them. DC already has problems with unpaid tickets; in Fiscal Year 2014, one in four tickets had gone unpaid.

However, the conclusion from the severity-versus-certainty research, much of it pioneered by now-NYU Professor Mark Kleiman, is that a high financial penalty may not be that valuable for deterring crime. And it does hit lower-income residents, many of whom reside in Trayon White's Ward 8, harder.

People who live paycheck to paycheck may not be able to just come up with the fine right away, for instance, but have to find the money in already very tight budgets, threatening food, electrical bills, or gas for that car.

We need the policy that would best deter ignoring tickets while being as equitable as possible. Some have suggested tickets should be proportional to income, for instance (and then the penalties could be as well). The experience of Ferguson, Missouri, taught the nation about the real cost of predatory, fine-based enforcement (and in that case, particularly, municipalities depending on fine revenue for their budgets).

After all, if you think doubling the ticket is fine (since people can just pay it! and it's a penalty on bad behavior!) ask yourself: why not a higher penalty? Should we banish anyone who doesn't pay a ticket for life? If not, why not? There needs to be some rationale behind setting these fines. I don't support doing so out of a desire to exact revenge on someone for behaving as we don't like; the goal of a civilized society should be to simply find the right incentives to make the behavior stop.

I do wonder if some penalty is still appropriate, but perhaps a lower one. If a bill does pass, it could offer a chance to get some real-world data on whether lower penalties lead to lower payment rates or not. (Even better would be to randomly assign tickets to two pools, one with a doubling and one without, and print that information in large type on the ticket; then you could really find out the effect of higher penalties.)

Image by Tim1965 licensed under Creative Commons.

Don't treat driving scofflaws more lightly than others

Some objectors to White's bill worry that this just perpetuates our society's habit of letting drivers of the hook and not other kinds of potentially dangerous criminality (drug dealing, theft, etc.)

Topher Mathews makes a good point. I'd like to see politicians proposing things like this out of a desire to calibrate punishment properly, not just because drivers and AAA lobbyists complain.

In his press release, White says parking tickets are one of the complaints he hears most often from constituents. Any politician can say the same, as nobody likes being fined by the government and for most residents, traffic laws are they laws they most often break. As 33,000 people die each year in the US from traffic crashes and they make up the leading cause of death for people ages 13-25, our leaders must temper their desire to mitigate residents' traffic complaints against the need to keep other residents safe. Parking tickets of course aren't as often about safety, but for every person parked illegally, there's some other constituent who can't get that space and might complain too.

White also cites how many tickets DC writes, using statistics from AAA Mid-Atlantic like this:

In 2016, speed enforcement cameras in the District, for example, generated so many tickets – 1.4 million – generated $148 million for local coffers, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic. According to local statistics, over the course of the last year, the number of tickets that were given out increased by nearly 70 percent.

OK, but if you believe in certainty-over-severity, then a 70% increase in tickets is good (but the fines should go down such that the total revenue stays flat or declines). That's not what AAA says, though. Reporters regularly report AAA statistics, and include quotes by AAA spokespeople about poor oppressed drivers who can't speed at will, in their stories without asking anyone else for other points of view on traffic safety. (The latest transgressor on that front is the Post's Luz Lazo in her article on this bill).

But White, to his credit, is therefore focusing on doubling rather than trying to reduce enforcement. “DC says that the tickets are about public safety,” he argued. “So how does doubling the ticket address public safety?”

We should apply this similar logic to other types of crime. We know that over-incarceration takes a huge toll on communities of color in particular, which are more likely to see a heavy police presence and thus more minor crimes are punished. (For example, 91% of people arrested for marijuana possession were black from 2009-2011, even though black and whites use it about the same amount (and whites 18-25 do more than their black counterparts.)

The same logic should apply to any crimes: Let's figure out what works for deterrence and do that, not more.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.