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Since the introduction of traffic laws at the turn of the 20th century, tickets have been dreaded nuisances to American drivers. But recent years have raised new questions about the ethical implications of these citations. Should local governments rely on revenue from fines to fund key programs? Do tickets disproportionately affect the impoverished, serving as a tax on the poorest citizens? New technology further complicates these ethical dilemmas: Are red-light cameras a natural progression of enforcement efforts, or a greedy move by money-hungry municipalities?

Perhaps because of the potential for public backlash, local governments typically do not disclose data related to the traffic citations they issue. But in this project, we’ve gathered a rare glimpse of traffic enforcement patterns – analyzing publicly available data for more than 57,000 tickets. Our findings shed light on the truth of long-held suspicions and the riskiest times to bend the rules of the road. Are you really more likely to get a ticket at the end of the month? What infractions are most likely to get you pulled over? For answers to these questions and more, keep reading.

Annual odds, monthly patterns

Studying years of traffic ticket data from a city of about 180,000 residents, we determined that roughly 117 tickets are issued each day on average.That equates to a 16 percent chance of receiving a ticket each year. Those odds naturally increase over longer periods: The likelihood of receiving a ticket within the next three years is nearly 50 percent. Of course, these probabilities refer to the public as a whole, but some demographic groups are more likely to be ticketed than others. For example, younger drivers and men account for a disproportionate number of speeding tickets, according to past research.

In terms of ticket risk, our data do support the suspicion that police are more likely to give citations at the end of the month in an attempt to meet internal quotas. According to our figures, ticket volume spiked significantly toward the end of the month: The 28th, 29th, 30th, and 31st were all among the top five days for tickets. This finding resonates with analyses performed in some of the nation’s largest cities, including New York. Despite denials from the police department, tickets are more common toward the end of the month in the Big Apple as well.

Interestingly, however,the first of the month ranked third in ticket volume. Assuming our results do reflect a concerted effort to give tickets toward the end of the month, tickets in the first few days of the next month could reflect a lingering sense of vigilance. Whatever the case may be, ticket volume seemed to bottom out in the middle days of the month, averaging less than six tickets per 10,000 residents from days 10 to 25.

Ticket risk by time

As commuters rush to their jobs in the morning, law enforcement is apparently already at work: Traffic tickets peaked between 7 and 9 a.m. This finding may have an obvious explanation: With so many cars on the road simultaneously, the number of lawbreakers naturally rises as well. Additionally, the vexing nature of morning traffic might tempt some drivers to pull unwise maneuvers, such as utilizing the carpool lane with no passengers. In states where traffic is a persistent challenge, such as California, that move could cost you nearly $500.

Interestingly, tickets spiked between 2 and 4 p.m. as well. Although this window is slightly earlier than afternoon rush hour, it could correspond to times in which school zone speed limits are active in the afternoon, causing drivers to be ticketed accordingly. From that time forward, traffic tickets declined until 9 p.m., at which point they steadily increased until midnight. Many factors might explain this late-night rise in tickets, including drivers’ fatigue and their impatience to get home. But this trend could also be attributable to violations that the nighttime reveals, such as having a headlight out.

Monday surpassed all other days in ticket volume – indicating that many drivers experience a rotten beginning to their weeks. Tuesday and Wednesday ranked close behind, followed by Saturday and Sunday. Interestingly, Thursday and Friday had the lowest rates of tickets issued. Some research suggests that workers are most productive earlier in the week and least industrious as the weekend approaches. Perhaps police officers are also less productive in issuing citations as the week nears an end?

High-volume violations

Speeding was the most common traffic violation cited in our data, accounting for nearly a quarter of all records. In the past, researchers have cited a range of influences on Americans’ penchant for speeding – including the influence of the “The Fast and the Furious” film franchise. License and tag or registration-related violations accounted for another fifth of all tickets. Some critics have argued that tickets of this kind perpetuate a cycle of debt: Drivers who cannot pay for tickets often have their licenses suspended – preventing them from driving to work and earning the income necessary to pay the original fine.

Other common violations included safety equipment or altered vehicle issues and driving with a learner’s permit outside of designated hours. The former category would ostensibly refer to vehicles that lack basic safety tools such as seat belts or headlights or cars that have been adjusted and violate a state or local traffic law. Careless driving or failure to use due care violations also accounted for more than 11 percent of all tickets issued; these terms refer to a broad array of irresponsible driving behaviors.

For every variety of violation,the concentration of tickets at the beginning and end of the month held true. In fact, the 30th and 31st were the most common days of the month for every kind of ticket. At the start of the month, the first and third days also witnessed unusually high ticket activity. These days ranked fourth and fifth respectively for the following violations: careless driving and failure to use due care, safety equipment or altered vehicle violations, and license, tag or registration, or document-related violations.

Driving justice – anytime

Our findings indicate that timing may contribute significantly to one’s chances of getting a ticket: Toward the end of the month or in the later evening hours,imperfect driving might attract law enforcement’s attention. Although drivers cannot control these contextual factors, they’re accountable for conscientious driving whenever they hit the road. Traffic citations represent more than tools for punishment or profit; they serve to deter behaviors that might harm fellow travelers. By remaining firmly within the bounds of the law, you’re looking out for the safety of others – as well as your driving record.

In certain circumstances, however, tickets truly are administered unjustly, or the penalty imposed exceeds what is appropriate for a given driving error. In these cases, traffic citations lead to extensive – and expensive – consequences. If you’re interested in mitigating or contesting a citation you recently received, we offer comprehensive guidance on the subject. Explore our resources to learn how effective legal representation can lead to huge savings in the long run.

Methodology

To determine if law enforcement gave out more citations at a particular time, we needed a complete list of citation data. To do this, we looked through the U.S. Open Data Census to first determine which cities made their citation data available for public use. Surprisingly, not many cities keep up-to-date citation data for public consumption.

For this project, we gathered data from the Fort Lauderdale Police Department Citation database that contains information on traffic citations given out in Fort Lauderdale (population estimated at 176,747 residents) and is updated daily. Data were filtered to only include citations received between Jan. 1, 2017 and May 1, 2018.

Citation descriptions were grouped in some cases based on descriptive terms like “speeding” or license/tag-related citations.

Citation counts were then averaged by day, month day, time of day, month week, and weekday to determine when people received more or fewer tickets on average over the course of a year.

Fair use statement

If you’d like to share this project’s findings on social media or your own website, you’re welcome to do so for noncommercial purposes. We simply request that you link back to this page to give our team credit for our work – that’s the kind of citation we can all appreciate.

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