MONEY Autos

Police All Over the U.S. Are Issuing Fewer Traffic Tickets

traffic violations
Jeffrey Coolidge—Getty Images

Drivers appear to be catching a break from cops, who are writing fewer tickets of late. But don't think for a second the decrease is because police have become softies all of a sudden.

The Nevada Supreme Court says it could be completely broke by May 1. The primary reason the court won’t have enough cash to operate? Not enough people are breaking the law. Or rather, not enough people are being caught breaking the law.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal recently reported that the number of traffic and parking citations has plummeted in Nevada, from 615,267 in 2010 to 484,913 last year. That’s a dip of more than 21% over five years. The state court system’s budget relies on millions of dollars in funding from such citations, so when significantly fewer tickets are issued, it can wreak havoc on the court’s ability to do its job, and even just keep the lights on.

In mid-March, Nevada Chief Justice James Hardesty raised the problem to a group of state lawmakers, asking the legislature to provide emergency funding to make up for the shortfall in citation revenues. The court’s budget is currently running $700,000 short. As for why the number of tickets issued by police has steadily declined, Hardesty doesn’t think it’s simply because a broad swath of drivers has suddenly seen the error of their ways and stopped speeding.

“With all due respect to the citizens of Nevada, I don’t think anyone is driving better,” Hardesty said to lawmakers. “I think the truth is that we’re seeing less traffic violations because law enforcement’s priorities have changed and it has changed dramatically.”

What, then, are the new priorities? The Review-Journal noted that police have put new “emphasis on violations that could cause crashes,” with citations up for drunk driving and cellphone use behind the wheel. Understaffing may be a factor as well.

In any event, the decrease in traffic citations is hardly limited to Nevada. Speeding tickets are down sharply in Wisconsin, from 294,000 convictions in 2004 to 156,000 in 2013. In Washington, D.C., police officers issued 76,832 traffic tickets last year, down from 81,161 in 2012 and 116,509 in 2010. Citations issued on interstates in Ohio are down as well, especially on busy I-70, where the monthly number of tickets is down 25%. Over in Pennsylvania, the number of tickets issued by state police was down 22% in September 2014 and 11% in October compared with the same months the year before.

Speed Limits Up, Revenue Down

What’s to explain the decline in tickets? In some cases, it’s a matter of not having the funds to keep police out on patrol looking for violators. Police in Wisconsin, for instance, say that federal grant money that used to support anti-speeding campaigns has dried up.

What’s interesting—or perhaps sad, in a which-came-first, dog-chasing-its-own-tail sorta way—is that budget tightening is often blamed for why ticket issuance is down, at the same time a decline in citations is pointed to as a prime reason for budget shortfalls in the first place. Understaffing due to budgetary constraints has been blamed for the sudden and dramatic decline in ticket revenues in Illinois, Massachusetts, and New York as well in recent years.

Higher speed limits that are more in line with how people actually drive also appear to have handcuffed the need to issue speeding tickets. When Ohio upped its speed limit to 70 mph in 2013, it became the 37th state to OK speeds of 70 or above. In light of that, it’s no coincidence that speeding tickets have dropped 7% on Ohio’s 70 mph stretches, and they’re down 25% on rural areas of I-70 where the limit is 70 mph.

In some cases, especially in D.C., there are indications that police are writing fewer traffic tickets because automated red-light camera systems are doing the job for them. In Pennsylvania, meanwhile, traffic tickets were supposedly down steeply last fall partly because police were occupied in a seven-week manhunt for alleged cop killer Eric Frein. What many drivers might find alarming is that even as citations were down during this period, ticket revenues were up significantly compared with the year before. How could this be? The average traffic fine simply got more expensive, hitting $125 in 2014, up from $114 the year before.

The cynics among us may think that police are writing fewer tickets mainly because they have little incentive to write more tickets. This certainly seems to be the case in parts of Illinois, where police issue traffic tickets at a tiny fraction of the rate their citation-happy brethren in law enforcement do across the border in Missouri. The most infamous example of this is Ferguson, Mo., where the killing of an unarmed Michael Brown by police inspired months of protests, and where police are known to write more and more tickets to fund local budgets. Nearly 12,000 traffic tickets were issued in Ferguson (population: 21,111) last year. Across the border in Illinois, where municipalities see very little of the money taken in from traffic fines, police in cities of similar size like Alton (population: 27,690) and Edwardsville (population: 24,663) handed out only 6,653 and 3,128 tickets, respectively, in 2013.

“None of us want an officer to have a financial incentive to write citations,” Edwardsville Police Chief Jay Keevan said to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

For that matter, traffic tickets aren’t supposed to be about money, right? They’re supposed to exist in order to incentivize drivers into behaving better behind the wheel and keep roads safer. The purpose of lower speed limits is supposed to be to save lives as well. With that in mind, one might assume that since speed limits have risen, and since police seem to have grown lax in their approach to writing tickets, roads would become more dangerous. But the statistics don’t bear this out.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, there were 30,057 car crashes in which someone died on American roads in 2013, the most recent year for which data is available. That’s the second-lowest fatal car crash total ever (2011 had slightly fewer), and it marked an all-time low for the death rate per 100,000 vehicle occupants.

In other words, roads today are safer, not more dangerous, and it’s hard to argue that writing more tickets is going to make anyone safer.

TIME Government

Americans Still Think Government Is Their Biggest Problem, Poll Shows

capitol-building
Getty Images

More than terrorism, ISIS and race relations

For the fourth month in a row, Americans have voted that the government is the biggest problem currently facing the United States.

According to a recent Gallup poll, 18% of Americans surveyed named the government as the most important U.S. problem, followed by 11% who named the economy in general and 10% who said unemployment. These beat out terrorism, ISIS and race relations on the survey.

Despite concerns about the government, 31% of Americans surveyed said they were satisfied with the direction of the country, well above its low of 7% in late 2008 during the economic crisis.

Read next: How Mexican Immigration to the U.S. Has Evolved

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

MONEY winter

Sick of Clearing the Snow? Failure to Do So Could Cost Even More

150304_EM_snow_1
Steven Senne/ASSOCIATED PRESS

It's been a stormy winter for much of the country, so it's understandable if you're tired of clearing snow off your car and sidewalk. But there's more reason than ever to handle these chores like a good citizen.

Earlier this winter—before we knew just how bad of a winter it would be—we ran a post about why it is so essential to shovel your walkway after it snows. The reasons start with getting hit with local fines for failing to clear snow and ice, and they end with the possibility of being sued for hundreds of thousands of dollars if someone falls and gets injured on your property.

In Boston, which is on the verge of crossing the mark for having snowiest winter on record, Mayor Martin Walsh plans on increasing the fine fivefold for property owners who don’t clear their sidewalks or snow and ice, or who push snow into the streets. The highest possible fine could be $1,500, up from the current maximum of $300, if Walsh can convince the city council to get on board with the idea at a meeting on Wednesday, the Boston Globe reported. If property owners don’t pay the fines, they would simply be added to the owner’s property tax bills.

“Failing to remove snow from a sidewalk puts lives at danger. It’s a problem for every pedestrian, but it is especially difficult for our children, for the disabled, and for the elderly to face deep, unshoveled sidewalks, and be forced to walk in the road,” Walsh said in a press release. “I urge the City Council and state officials to move this legislation which grants us the authority to deter these violations, hold accountable those who are guilty, and recoup some of the added costs that these violations create.”

Getting sidewalks cleared of snow and ice has also proven to be a problem in many parts of New York City, especially in neighborhoods overrun with foreclosed properties and vacant buildings, where it’s sometimes impossible to track down who, if anyone, is the owner. According to a New York Times analysis, 331 tickets for failure to clear snow off sidewalks have been issued to just 10 notorious properties in the Bronx. The Bronx has been hit with the most fines per capita (more than 10,000 violations), though Brooklyn and Queens properties have received more tickets overall, with 14,000 and 13,000, respectively.

Meanwhile, in places like northeast Ohio, unshoveled sidewalks and walkways are causing a host of problems, including disputes among neighbors and gripes from elderly residents about the unfairness of fines. In some cases, the United States Postal Service has even stopped delivering the mail to residences where sidewalks, walkways, or streets are clogged with snow and ice.

Your obligation to clear snow doesn’t stop at the edge of your property, however. Laws have been passed in New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Connecticut, among other places, requiring drivers to clear snow from cars before heading out onto roads. In the latter, drivers face fines up to $1,000 if snow or ice flies off your vehicle and causes damage to another car or motorist, but in most cases, the fine would be a flat $75.

There’s also a bill currently under consideration in Pennsylvania that would allow police to pull over cars and trucks if the vehicle is covered in ice or snow that “may pose a threat to persons or property,” regardless of whether or not any damage has been caused. If the bill becomes law, drivers would face fines of $25 to $75 for not clearing snow and ice from vehicles. That’s cheap compared to Europe, where failure to clear snow from cars in the Alps could result in a fine of €450, or around $500.

TIME Government

Kayla Mueller’s Father Says U.S. ‘Put Policy in Front of American Citizens’ Lives’

ISIS claims the 26-year-old hostage died in a recent air strike

Slain ISIS hostage Kayla Mueller’s father has accused the Obama administration of putting its policy of not paying ransoms “in front of American citizens’ lives.”

In an exclusive interview with TODAY’s Savannah Guthrie, Carl Mueller said he had mixed feelings about the government’s refusal to negotiate with terrorist groups who kidnapped foreigners. Other Western countries are known to have paid millions to secure the release of their nationals.

“We understand the policy about not paying ransom,” he said. “But on the other hand, any parents out there would understand that you would want anything and everything done to bring your child home…”

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

MONEY Autos

How New York’s Proposed Toll Hikes Stack Up Against Other Cities’

bridges over Hudson river
Brett Beyer—Getty Images

The tolls faced by New York City drivers today are expensive, and could get even pricier if a new proposal on the table is approved. Still, in the grand scheme, the city's tolls are cheap compared to some other places in the world.

This week, a transit advocacy group introduced the Move NY Fair Plan, a proposal to add and tweak driving fees around Manhattan in order to address what it describes as an “unfair, regressive tolling system,” while also easing traffic congestion and raising $1.5 billion annually to fund transportation infrastructure. The gist of the proposal, as summed up by the New York Times, the Times Herald-Record, and others, is that some bridge tolls would get cheaper while a few new tolls would be added according to “a logical formula: higher tolls where transit options are most available and lower tolls where transit is either not available or a less viable option.”

The plan calls for tolls to be added to four bridges that cross the East River but traditionally have been toll-free: Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queensboro, and Williamsburg. Vehicles would also start being hit with a fee when they cross 60th Street northbound or southbound in Manhattan. In both cases, the new tolls would run $5.54 each way for E-ZPass users, and $8 for others. Meanwhile, tolls on a few other New York City bridges, including the Verrazano Narrows, Throgs Neck, and Bronx-Whitestone, would be reduced by $2.50 for E-ZPass holders.

The overarching argument in favor of the changes is that the existing system of tolls and transit fares isn’t sufficient to fund infrastructure needs, and that today’s tolls are just plain unfair. Hence the proposed “Fair Plan.”

But how “fair” would the new tolls be compared to what drivers face elsewhere? The proposal—which for now is just that, a proposal that may not win much support in the city or Albany—would have no effect whatsoever on the bridges and tunnels run by the Port Authority, including the George Washington Bridge and Lincoln and Holland Tunnels, among others. If the plan is approved, the East River Bridge tolls—again, $5.54 each way with E-ZPass, so $11.08 round trip—would be cheaper than a Port Authority bridge or tunnel crossing into New York during peak commuting hours ($11.75), but pricier than an off-peak trip ($9.75).

Among other pricey bridges and tunnels around the U.S. and abroad:

Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel: The $15 toll during peak season (Friday to Monday, May 15 to September 15) is quite pricey, but hey, this engineering wonder connecting Virginia’s Eastern Shore to Hampton Roads and Virginia Beach is 20 miles long.

Golden Gate Bridge: At a cost of $6 to $7 only for cars heading into San Francisco, the Golden Gate doesn’t charge as if it’s one of America’s most famous landmarks.

Whittier Tunnel: This 2.5-mile passage in between Anchorage, Alaska, and Whittier and Prince William Sound is the longest highway tunnel in the U.S., and it only has one lane that must be shared by cars and trains. The cost of driving through in a standard vehicle is $12 one way.

Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge: Also known as Pearl Bridge, Japan’s Akashi-Kaikyo has the world’s longest central span of any suspension bridge, at 1.2 miles. Driving across costs 2,300 Yen, which is around $20 per vehicle today. The toll used to be closer to $30 back in the days when the American dollar wasn’t quite as strong.

Mont Blanc Tunnel: This passage crossing the France-Italy border in the Alps is impressive for two key data points. The tunnel stretches a total of 7.2 miles, and driving through costs about $49 one way.

As for the idea that drivers in the New York City area be charged not for crossing a body of water but simply for entering or exiting Manhattan’s CBD (central business district), Singapore, Milan, London, and Stockholm have had similar toll systems in place for years. London’s “congestion pricing” scheme has been in place since 2003. Back then, the daily charge for driving in central London was £5, or about $7.75 today. The driving surcharge has since increased, hitting £11.50 ($18) last summer.

Compared to that, the $5.54 charge to drive into lower Manhattan just might seem cheap.

TIME Education

Shrinking the Education Gap Would Boost the Economy, Study Says

Students applaud as U.S. President Obama arrives to deliver the commencement address at the Worcester Technical High School graduation ceremony in Worcester
Kevin Lamarque —Reuters Students applaud as U.S. President Barack Obama arrives to deliver the commencement address at the Worcester Technical High School graduation ceremony in Worcester, Massachusetts June 11, 2014

A modest improvement in the lowest test scores could see GDP rise by $2.5 trillion by 2050

Narrowing the education gap between America’s poor and wealthy school children could accelerate the economy and significantly increase government revenues, according to a new study.

An improvement in the educational performance of the average student will result in “stronger, more broadly shared economic growth, which in turn raises national income and increases government revenue, providing the means by which to invest in improving our economic future,” says the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.

The study is based on findings from a 2012 assessment given by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Data showed the U.S. education system performed poorly when compared against the world’s 34 developed nations, ranking below average in mathematics and just average in reading and science.

The Washington Center took America’s test score of 978, and in their most modest scenario boosted the achievement scores of the country’s bottom 75% testers so that the national score reached the worldwide developed nation average of 995 (or roughly equal with France).

This would raise the U.S. GDP by 1.7% by 2050, they found, which, taking inflation into account, would amount to a $2.5 trillion rise or an average of $72 billion extra per year.

The country would also make over $900 billion extra in total federal, local and state revenue.

If the U.S. were able to match Canada’s educational achievement score of 1044, the potential gain would be significantly higher. The study estimates that GDP would grow by 6.7%, equivalent to $10 trillion or about $285 billion per year.

This latter scenario would mean a revenue boost of $3.6 trillion.

The Washington Center said their findings suggest that governmental investments into education would pay for itself in the form of economic growth for many years to come.

TIME Budget

Government Budget Cuts Are Hitting ‘Red’ States Hardest, Say Analysts

A red traffic light stands in front of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington
JAMES LAWLER DUGGAN —REUTERS A red traffic light stands in front of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington September 30, 2013, approximately one hour before the U.S. federal government partially shut down after lawmakers failed to compromise on an emergency spending bill

Experts suggest the discrepancy may point to the politicalization of public spending

Recent governmental budget cuts have not been distributed evenly with slashed spending hitting pro-Republican states the hardest, according to new analysis by Reuters.

Funding for a range of discretionary grant programs has fallen 40% in Republican states compared to a drop of only 25% in swing states or states that tend to support the Democrats, claims the news agency.

“I would suggest these numbers would tell us there is politicization going on,” said John Hudak of the Brookings Institution, who helped Reuters analyze the federal spending.

The money that the government allocates to discretionary spending goes to initiatives like the Head Start preschool education scheme and anti-drugs programs.

Read more on the study at Reuters

TIME Government

Government Officials May Be Using Less Mumbo Jumbo

Courtesy of the Center for Plain Language This report card shows how well federal government agencies did in 2014, in terms of speaking plainly when communicating with the public. It was released on Jan. 27, 2015.

"They just don’t write that well"

On Tuesday, the non-profit Center for Plain Language released its third annual report card for federal government agencies. Those who are following the spirit and letter of the Plain Writing Act—a 2010 law designed to eliminate bureaucratic gobbledygook—got A’s. Those who failed to abide and didn’t submit documents to be reviewed earned big fat F’s.

The bad news is that government agencies are still using words like weatherization, gasification, grantsmanship and interdependencies. The good news is that, overall, the average grade is going up, with 16 of 22 departments improving over the previous year’s grades.

That means fewer sentences like this, from the Department of Defense:

The Deputy Secretary, the second-highest ranking official in the DoD, is delegated full power and authority to act for the Secretary and to exercise the powers of the Secretary on any and all matters for which the Secretary is authorized to act.

And more sentences like this, from the Social Security Administration:

You need a Social Security number to get a job, collect Social Security benefits and get some other government services.

As well as fewer sentences like this, from the Department of Education (note, this really is just one sentence):

Comparison teachers included those from traditional routes to certification (those who completed all requirements for certification, typically through an undergraduate or graduate program in education, before they began to teach) and teachers from less selective alternative routes to certification (programs that allowed teachers to begin to teach before completing all requirements for certification, but that were not as selective as TFA and the Teaching Fellows programs).

And more sentences like this, from the Transportation Security Administration:

Fireworks are not permitted in checked or carry-on baggage.

But the Center for Plain Language also did things a little bit differently this time around. Rather than just grading compliance (Does the agency appoint someone to oversee their plain language endeavors? Is there a way for the public to give the agency feedback about their language?), they gave each agency a grade for compliance, writing samples and information design. The latter is a web-inspired category that’s all about using typeface and white space and graphics to make complex ideas easier to digest. In that area, most agencies came away with C’s.

“They just don’t write that well,” Annetta Cheek, co-founder of the Center for Plain Language, says about government employees. “There’s a lot of feeling that if it doesn’t look complex and legal maybe it’s not legal … It’s just counter to the culture of the government, and people struggle to write plainly.” When it comes to visual elements, she says that’s not even on most agencies’ radars. They’re all text and no pictures. “It will be a while before they dig themselves out of the hole and get to the high level that some private sector companies already have,” she says.

Cheek has been lobbying for Washington, D.C., denizens to speak simply with the public for the past 20 years. And she says that despite the government’s taste for overwrought sentences, “we are finally seeing some significant progress.”

The full report card is above. Cheek says that they’ll likely be dropping the compliance grade next year, since almost every agency has figured out how to follow the letter of the law (note all the A’s). And rather than letting the agencies cherry-pick samples to submit—which forces some skepticism about how much these grades really convey—the Center’s researchers will be making their own selections. The grades for writing were determined by feeding example documents through a software program that picked out red flags like long words, needless words and passive verbs. The information design scores were determined by two people independently scoring the documents’ visual elements.

The Act itself doesn’t include a process for oversight, which is why the Center for Plain Language developed this annual process for rewarding straightforward speech and holding jargon-lovers’ feet to the fire.

TIME

U.S. Women Leadership Ranking is Pathetic Compared to Other Countries

Democratic Women
Tom Williams—CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images House Democratic women of the 114th Congress including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, pose for a picture on the House steps of the Capitol, Jan. 7, 2015.

We're not even close to the top

When it comes to women in leadership roles, the U.S. isn’t cutting it.

According to a new comparison by Pew, the U.S. ranks 33rd out of 49 high-income countries when it comes to women in the national legislature (20% of the House and Senate are women). When they expanded the comparison to 137 countries, the U.S. dropped to 83rd (these calculations were made were using data from mid-2014, but even when the most recent Congressional elections are taken into consideration, the U.S. only rises to 75th place.)

We did a little better when it comes to women in cabinet or government managerial positions: the U.S. ranked 25th out of 141 countries, and when the pool was narrowed to high-income countries, we tied for 12th place with Canada.

Pew also tracked “legislators, senior officials, and managers,” a category which includes corporate leaders, heads of nonprofits or unions, and policymakers. Among high-income countries, the U.S. was tied with Barbados, Tobago, and Trinidad for fourth place, but when the comparison was expanded to 125 countries with data available, the U.S. dropped to 16th place.

In other words, for all our striving, we’re not being particularly effective at electing female leaders compared to other countries. Especially compared to Rwanda, where 64% of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies are held by women.

[Pew]

MONEY The Economy

The 2015 State of the Union Address In Under 2 Minutes

President Barack Obama highlighted the recovering economy as well as proposals for free community college, increasing trade with Cuba, and building more infrastructure.

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