A Recession-Driven Speed Trap in Falls Church?

Economic studies show that local governments often step up enforcement of minor traffic offenses during recessions in order to increase revenue. I seem to have been the victim of this kind of recession-driven revenue-mongering by the authorities in Falls Church, Virginia.

Twice during the past year, I have been ticketed for driving over the 25 MPH speed limit on Route 7 near downtown Falls Church, Virginia. Both times, the officers claimed I was going over 40 MPH, even though there was heavy traffic and it would have been physically impossible for me to have gone that fast without hitting the car ahead of me (which I didn’t come close to doing). I admit that it is quite possible that I was in fact going over 25 MPH. But this is a busy commercial thoroughfare where nearly all the traffic goes faster than that. As the officer in the second incident admitted to me, “all the cars [he] checked were going over 25 MPH.” Had I chosen to go much slower than the rest of the traffic, I would have endangered both myself and others. That’s why I got nailed in the second incident despite the fact that I knew to be careful in this area after what happened the first time.

During normal times, police generally let minor infringements of the speed limit go because they recognize that it is unrealistic to expect drivers to fully obey the speed limit and because they know that going much slower than the surrounding traffic is dangerous. During a deep recession, however, local governments pressure police to crack down and increase revenue. I suspect that such pressure is particularly likely in areas like Route 7 where much of the traffic is by people who don’t live in the jurisdiction. That way, local governments can fleece drivers who can’t even punish them at the polls for doing so. Such behavior undermines the implicit social contract between police and drivers under which the former focus on motorists who pose a genuine threat to public safety, while the latter can be assured that if they drive safely, minor infractions won’t be punished. The implicit contract is especially vital in an area like this stretch of Route 7, where the posted speed limit is simply unrealistic.

Between 2003 and 2009, I lived in Falls Church and drove down the very same road hundreds of times. I didn’t do anything differently than I have over the last year. Yet I never had any problems with traffic police. Since leaving Falls Church in August 2009, I have been stopped twice in that location, despite going there far less often (no more than 10-12 times in all). It’s possible that I somehow became a much more aggressive driver since the recession began (though social science data suggest that men become more cautious drivers as they pass into their thirties, and I am now 37). But it’s far more likely that it was enforcement that changed rather than me.

I was so angry that I actually contested the first incident in court, notwithstanding folk wisdom suggesting that I was wasting my time. Despite the facts that 1) the officer admitted that she misidentified the color of my Mazda 3, 2) both I and and my then-fiancee (who was with me in the car at the time) testified to the nature of the traffic, which made it impossible to drive 40 MPH, 3) the officer didn’t contest our testimony, and 4) the Mazda 3 is a very common car, the judge ruled against me. I don’t claim that these facts definitively prove that I was innocent. As I said, I don’t know for sure exactly how fast I was going. But they should surely have been enough to prove reasonable doubt, the standard of proof the judge was supposed to be applying.

I’m not an expert on traffic judges. But I suspect that people in that position tend to be biased in favor of the authorities, partly for the understandable reason that the police are usually right, and partly because local governments lobby for the selection of judges who will serve their revenue-raising interests. In Virginia, lower court judges are chosen by their local state legislative delegation, which creates obvious opportunities for lobbying by local governments. The driving public, by contrast, pays little attention to traffic courts because of rational ignorance. Moreover, even a completely unbiased judge can’t do much to protect drivers in cases where the driver really did exceed the speed limit, but in a way that should not have been punished. For these reasons, the judiciary may not be a very effective check against this kind of abuse.

I don’t have the expertise to propose any definitive solutions to this problem. But a few tentative thoughts occur. One possible option is to adopt speed limit laws under which speed limits automatically go up by, say, 5 MPH during a recession. That could offset the tendency towards overenforcement during such periods. Another option is to impose more rigorous state government control over speed limits in areas that get a great deal of traffic from outside the local jurisdiction. That might curb the ability of local governments to use speed traps to fleece out of towners.

Hopefully, those more expert than I am can suggest more and better reforms. In the meantime, I’m going to avoid driving near downtown Falls Church as much as possible. If you live in northern Virginia, you might want to do the same.