Police officers across Maryland are writing fewer traffic citations than at any time since the early 1980s, a trend that may partly account for rising speeds on some of the state's busiest highways.
After years of steady growth, the number of traffic tickets written in Maryland dropped from an all-time high of 1,160,473 between July 1, 1990, and June 30, 1991, to a 10-year low of 830,400 during the same period in 1992-1993, a 28 percent decline.
The figures are drawn from state District Court records, which also indicate that the trend has continued into 1994. Total traffic tickets are projected to match or fall below 830,000 when they are finally tallied for the year.
But even as citations fall, highway speeds appear to be on the rise. Cars and trucks traveling two of the Baltimore area's busiest highways, Interstates 95 and 70, have recently been clocked at speeds not recorded since Maryland abandoned a 65 mph speed limit 21 years ago.
Between April 1 and June 30 of this year, average speeds on I-95 at the Howard County line and I-70 near Frederick were calculated at 64 mph and 64.3 mph, respectively, by the State Highway Administration (SHA). One of every six cars drove 70 mph or faster on those interstates.
As recently as 1990, I-95 and I-70 traffic speeds averaged between 6 mph and 8 mph slower as measured by sensors buried in the pavement, SHA records indicate.
Unfazed by traffic roaring past, a four-member team of state troopers last week used a beat-up blue pickup truck along I-95 at Route 100 to disguise a midday speed trap.
Stopping only those cars measured by a radar gun as traveling 70 mph or faster, the officers had to let many offenders pass -- they were simply too busy hauling in vehicles.
When a red Nissan Stanza was caught doing 70 mph, the 42-year-old driver was so surprised to be stopped, he offered Tfc. Steve Wilson a revealing explanation.
"He said he thought he was only doing 65," Trooper Wilson said after writing the ticket. "I told him I thought we still had a problem there."
Speeding tickets represent the largest category of traffic violations in the state -- about 40 percent of all citations written by police. The total of speeding tickets for the 1994 fiscal year, which ended June 30, is expected to be in the range of 306,000, compared with 494,248 three years ago, a 38 percent reduction.
The dual trends of fewer citations and faster speeds come as little surprise to police departments where resources that once went into traffic enforcement have been diverted to combat drugs and violent crime.
"It's obvious to me and everybody I talk to that more people are exceeding the speed limit. Drive around the Beltway at 65 mph and you'll be blocking traffic," said Lt. Col. James E. Harvey, state police deputy superintendent. "Drugs have become a major problem, and perhaps we have emphasized drug enforcement to the detriment of other activities."
In Baltimore, city police officers wrote one-third fewer citations last year than three years earlier.
Traffic officers blame the decline on their dwindling ranks. For years, they have watched colleagues getting transferred to other duties.
"Years ago, we had 90 motorcycle officers. Today, we have 20," said Lt. Larry Johnston, administrative officer for the city police traffic section. "Believe me, we recognize the decrease [in citations] and we see it as a problem."
Hard times have also forced many jurisdictions to cut budgets, including for police departments. In Baltimore County, where citations fell by one-third between 1991 and 1993, the force was cut by 150 officers in 1992.
Federal grants reduced
"Reduced manpower plays a part in this, but I can't say it's the whole reason," said Capt. Howard B. Hall, who supervises the Baltimore County Police Department's traffic enforcement efforts.
The federal government has cut grants to states for certain types of traffic enforcement. State police, for instance, received $256,000 in aid during the past fiscal year, compared with $500,000 three years earlier.
Police also complain that they are being asked to do more with less. They must respond to more emergency calls, spend more time in communities mingling with residents and attend task force meetings on topics ranging from carjacking to how truckers handle hazardous waste.
"Every time you have another task force, you've involved another two or three officers in each county," said Michael Fischer, a sergeant in the state police field operations bureau. "All those things take officers away from driving up and down writing tickets."
$10 million less in fines
Ironically, the recent drop in citations has cost the state $10 million in fines, money that goes into the general fund but might have been used to bolster police. That amount could, for instance, pay, train and outfit 157 state troopers.
But has the lack of citations really emboldened motorists to speed or break other laws? The SHA documents traffic speed only on interstate highways, and those results have been mixed.
While traffic on I-70 and I-95 is no doubt faster, average speeds on all Maryland interstates combined have hardly fluctuated over the past six years. Tempered by growing traffic congestion, the statewide average is 56.5 mph.
The federal government has in the past penalized states where speeding was judged to be excessive by withholding highway construction funds or forcing more money to be spent on safety programs. But recent changes in the formula used to calculate speed make it unlikely that Maryland will face sanctions.
Also, police point out strategic reasons for the changing patterns in issuing tickets. Instead of writing them indiscriminately, officers increasingly target accident-prone streets and intersections.
That results in fewer tickets. But from a safety standpoint, they may be more important tickets for police to write.
"I look at accident rates, not citation rates," said Captain Hall of the Baltimore County Police Department. "Instead of randomly putting traffic officers on the streets, we try to redirect them to where problems are the worst."
That may be one of the reasons why the number of accidents on Maryland roads has been falling for a decade.
Fatalities rose only slightly between 1992 and 1993 from 593 to 605.
Nevertheless, anecdotal evidence of speeding is overwhelming. At The Sun's request, 100 vehicles driving northbound on Interstate 97 in Anne Arundel County near the Benfield Boulevard exit Thursday were checked for speed, using an SHA laser gun.
The result: Despite a rainstorm, the mean speed of the midafternoon traffic was a brisk 63 mph. As many vehicles were found exceeding that speed as going slower.
"I may be more sensitive to it myself, but I see more obvious traffic violations than I used to," said Sgt. Glenn Hansen, supervisor of traffic enforcement for the Howard County Police Department. "Drivers have learned what they can get away with -- give an inch, and they are ready to take a mile."
But even if speeds are increasing, the drop in traffic citations may not be to blame.
And the favorable trends in accidents and fatalities make it difficult to prove that speeding has done much harm.
Some traffic experts believe the proper response may not be to issue more citations, but to raise the maximum speed limit to 65 mph.
Maryland is one of only a handful of states that hasn't, and critics believe the disparity between actual speed and the posted limit has lessened respect for traffic laws generally.
"A sign that says 55 mph is strictly enforced has become a joke," said Thomas Hicks, the SHA's director of traffic and safety.
While the federal government keeps no records on traffic violations, safety proponents believe citations are dropping nationwide.
"Highway patrols, state police and the other various traffic units have been assigned to other duties, and that's frustrating to many chiefs and sheriffs," said Dennis Martin, president of the National Association of Chiefs of Police. "Because of a lack of enforcement, it's unbelieveable what happens on our streets and highways."
Yet the public seems more incensed by carnage on the sidewalk than in the road despite the fact that crash victims outnumber murder victims by a 5-3 ratio.
The federal government pegs the economic cost of illegal drug use at $18.5 billion a year; the cost of fatal crashes is put at %% $137.5 billion.
"Nobody gets behind the wheel expecting to get in an accident," said Brian O'Neill, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Arlington, Va. "But the chance a cop will give them a ticket is a real concrete image -- and the only way to improve driver behavior."