Ticket-writing surges after city traffic police doubled
Have you gotten a traffic ticket lately? Minneapolis traffic police say they nearly quadrupled tickets written in May compared to March after their unit was more than doubled.
Despite recent widespread 2003 city budget cutting, the traffic unit grew from 10 to 22 officers in part because ticket fines can pay officer salaries. City officials insist finances aren’t the only motivation; they predict speeding and other bad driving will fall and safety and neighborhood livability will improve, although early data shows no drop in accidents.
Still, City Councilmember Dan Niziolek (10th Ward), head of the council committee overseeing the police, said more traffic cops are already producing results.
Sgt. Wes Ostlund, the unit’s nighttime supervisor, said the new officers focus mostly on felony accidents such as drunk driving and moving violations such as speeding and accidents. They sometimes write tickets for expired license tabs, but rarely for parking violations, he said.
Niziolek said the number of tags leapt from 645 tags in March to 2,450 tags in May.
Sara Dietrich, city communications specialist, said the traffic unit was budgeted $875,000 for additional officers, and the fines from tickets they issue pay their cost.
Still, Dietrich said it’s not possible to gauge how much money the additional officers have brought so far, since there’s approximately a 60-day delay between a driver receiving their ticket and paying their fine.
Ostlund said going to 22 officers has allowed the traffic unit to return to its size of 10 years ago. He said the staff boost has significantly boosted enforcement abilities and responsiveness.
"The complaint calls used to be at the low end of the totem poll," he said. "(The increase) makes us more responsive to problems in the neighborhood."
Ostlund said before the increase, the 10 officers mostly answered to 911 calls, many to accidents, which left little time to respond to problems. "They’d call (with complaints) and we’d have to say ‘Sorry, we don’t have anyone to send,’" he said.
Dietrich said traffic issues are liability issues and should be addressed as such, and it’s good that the city accomplished it through self-funding (although bad drivers might argue they’re the ones financing the accomplishment).
Niziolek said the staffing increase is part of a holistic solution to improve living on city streets. He said he thinks stepped-up enforcement will change people’s perception when they come into Minneapolis. "We’re starting to see us as a city get more aggressive dealing with livability," he said.
While the number of tags has increased dramatically, Ostlund said the number of accidents has remained the same. But he said because there are more police on the streets patrolling for traffic offenses, the city will be safer, because police can stop lower-level offenders before drivers cause an accident or commit a more egregious traffic infraction.
Residents in the Fulton and Lynnhurst neighborhoods demonstrated through their "Slow down on 50th Street" sign-and-bumper-sticker campaign that neighborhood traffic harms livability.
Residents who persuaded Hennepin County to re-stripe 50th to slow traffic said they don’t feel safe walking or driving on the busy county-owned road amongst speeders.
Residents in other Southwest neighborhoods such as Linden Hills, Kingfield and Windom have also voiced concern about speeding. They have requested more speed humps or crosswalks to calm and slow speeders near their homes and keep accidents from happening.
However, Ostlund said speeding is just one of the three major traffic problems affecting accident rates. He said the top three causes of accidents are alcohol, speeding and inattentive driving.
Ostlund said more officers will better combat these problems, but a force of 22 still isn’t enough for a city as big as Minneapolis. However, he said there are other traffic options that improve the safety and livability of city streets.
Solutions for traffic problems
Ostlund said traffic engineering in Southwest has been a valuable tool reducing traffic problems. He said a good example is the Nicollet Avenue Bridge between 51st Street and Minnehaha Parkway.
He said officers used to stop many people for speeding coming south over the hill between 50th Street and the parkway. Ostlund said when a driver is on a bridge, free of nearby markers such as boulevard trees they subconsciously use to track speed, they lose their visual perception and speed.
To change this behavior, he said city traffic engineers added pillars to the bridge to serve as markers for drivers, and also reduced four lanes of traffic to two, successfully slowing traffic. "Through engineering, they’ve reduced a vast amount of speeding," Ostlund said.
City transportation engineer Don Pflaum cautions that engineering to calm traffic only works on a case-by-case basis. He said the best tool the city has to reduce traffic problems is police enforcement.