Enforcement drops, crashes proliferate, people die

photo: Kelly Presnell / Arizona Daily Star

Tim Steller’s excellent (dare I say, stellar?) piece in the Daily Star: Enforcement drops, crashes proliferate, pedestrians die exposes the inexplicable sharp decline in traffic enforcement in the City of Tuscon by the Tuscon PD. 

This comes as a spate of pedestrian fatalities has pushed well above trend  in the city (22 so far this year; and Tucson is not a large city); most recently the double-fatality of Anna Mentzer and son Ethan killed in a crosswalk while walking to school.

Steller unpacks a bunch of recent statistics, such as the decline in civil traffic cases from 161,928 in FY2014 fell almost in half, to 84,640 in FY2016. As he points out, the largest single issue likely being the elimination of automated enforcement (traffic cameras) via a voter initiative in Nov 2015. That still likely leaves a decrease of 10’s of thousands of citations unaccounted for.

The most worrying hard statistic is the decline in criminal traffic filings; that eliminates the automated enforcement wildcard because cameras were only ever used to issue civil violations:

“Criminal traffic filings also plummeted in that period by 32 percent, from 13,464 to 10,195”

Criminal traffic are predominantly DUIs. Fewer DUI arrests most likely means there were fewer police on traffic patrols looking for apparently impaired drivers. It also means few distracted drivers getting pulled over — say for weaving, a hallmark of either an impaired or a distracted driver. So neither the drunk or the distracted driver gets arrested/cited.

He says “Something bigger is going on”. Indeed, it is…

Statewide Trends

Traffic incidents, injuries and fatalities have been on as  upward march for years [1]. This despite supposedly “safer” vehicles: more vehicles have more airbags, greater crash-worthiness, blind-spot detection, and other engineering advances.

Figures from the Arizona Supreme Court’s Annual Reports show shocking declines in DUI cases/arrests; coupled with significant increases in traffic fatalities both alcohol-involved and overall, for many years.

  • 82,628 in 2009 (261 alc related / 806 all fatals)
  • 72,715 in 2012 (281 alc related / 821 all fatals)
  • 57,845 in 2016 (307 alc related / 962 all fatals)

So it appears we’ve got more drivers driving more (VMT has increased modestly over period), and presumably more drivers driving drunk, along with rising traffic deaths and injuries and a significant decline in DUI cases. Why aren’t police doing their job? It’s hard to say, but it probably has something to do with money.

There will always be some conspiracy theorists who insist traffic enforcement is “all about the money” as though cities are raking in the dough; this is largely a myth,  the current problems highlighted above with declining numbers of tickets and arrests are likely a product of the fact that live in-person traffic enforcement is exceedingly expensive for cities (and the state, in the case of DPS).

The number of civil traffic filings have decrease as well, though the annual reports state it in a not-obvious way, here’s the decrease from FY 2012 to 2016, about a 20% drop.

2012: 1,226,000 civil traffic filings (” Statewide, civil traffic case filings account for 56.7% of all case filings in Justice and Municipal Courts. Civil traffic filings decreased by 28,203, or 2.3% from FY 2011 to FY 2012.)

2016: 987,309 civil traffic filings (“Civil traffic filings account for 54.5% of all case filings in the Justice and Municipal Courts
statewide. Civil traffic filings decreased by 54,302, or 5.5% from FY 2015 to FY 2016)

It also states the drop in court revenue (mostly fines. Overall dropped from $397M to $363M during 2012 to 2016 period. This is the entire court system, not just traffic) is a continuing trend: “The trend in decreasing revenue continues to be driven by the overall decline in both criminal and civil traffic filings”

What’s a policymaker to do?

None of this explains how or why this is happening.

A person is far more likely to die, or be injured in a traffic crash compared to being shot or stabbed.

Policy makers must ensure that they are providing adequate funding and guidance to their police. This doesn’t apply to limited-access highways, but — City leaders should also evaluate why their city streets are designed with high-speed arterial network and what could be done to make them safer for all by designing for reduced peak motorist speed.

Tucson Police Chief Magnus Admit Lack of Traffic Enforcement

In a follow-on Stellar piece, Stellar claims “The Police Department has been hampered by low staffing, he said (referring to Chief Magnus). Officers often are so backed up on higher-priority calls that they don’t have time to enforce traffic laws”. In the story, Tucson Police Chief Magnus is quoted as saying:

“We know that by not dealing with the traffic situation as aggressively as we’d like to, we’re going to have accidents [a-words!?; certainly he means crashes],” he said.
“You don’t have to impress upon me the seriousness of this problem. It’s very, very significant and we’ve got to get a handle on it.”

Note to Chief Magnus: please #crashnotaccident !! Stop giving reckless, careless, negligent and criminal drivers cover for their actions.

Stellar Update April 2019

April 2019 update, Spoiler alert, it’s not getting better. Stellar says City of Tucson is removing some marked crosswalks to improve pedestrian safety; the idea is to make peds scared to cross the street.

That theory is, by the way, contradicted by FHWA Safety Effects of Marked Versus Unmarked Crosswalks at Uncontrolled Locations,  referring to the Knoblauch studies: “No evidence was found indicating that pedestrians are less vigilant in a marked crosswalk”


[1] e.g. total injured persons, 63,830 in 2010 increased to 72,195 in 2016.
SELECT count(1) FROM 2014_person WHERE InjuryStatus >1;

2 thoughts on “Enforcement drops, crashes proliferate, people die”

  1. Here are a bunch of stories(?) I’ve been told by Tusconians about TPD. I have no way to corroborate them, though some of it should be just simple matter-of-fact (were two judges laid off by the city? Did TPD disband their traffic unit? Does TPD do any traffic patrols?):

    In 2014, TPD stopped going to crash scenes unless there were reports of injuries to 911.
    TPD is understaffed. No traffic unit now. Two judges that heard traffic cases are laid off.

    TPD has long since stopped writing crash reports when there is no ambulance transport. Wife of friend takes rider to hospital = no report.

    Last year, the traffic unit was disbanded (no officers assigned to work traffic violations) and two city judges who heard traffic cases were laid off.

    Due to lack of funding, about a year ago, the Tucson Police Department terminated it’s traffic unit. The City Council laid off two city court judges who primarily heard traffic citation cases… There are NO officers who are routinely in traffic looking for violations.

    TPD has taken to a policy of not responding to 911 calls if there is no report of injury. If there is a report of injury, they will show up on a low priority basis… When the officer shows up, it is policy now that they do not have to fill out a report (despite State law), unless there are injuries.

  2. Ed Beighe yes; my counterpoint to anyone willing to listen is there is no standard for “injury”; i mean a scratch is an injury, a bruise is an injury, a scrape is an injury. I contend it’s virtually impossible to actually be involved in a MV-bike and have NO injuries, unless the injured person allows it(!)

    PDO means Property Damage ONLY.

    Here are some legal definitions…

    33. “Physical injury” means the impairment of physical condition.

    39. “Serious physical injury” includes physical injury that creates a reasonable risk of death, or that causes serious and permanent disfigurement, serious impairment of health or loss or protracted impairment of the function of any bodily organ or limb.

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