Number of traffic violations cited by Lawrence police has plummeted in last decade; city manager questions strategy
photo by: Journal-World photo illustration
As officials reconsider the city’s efforts to physically slow down drivers, they are also asking whether police should be writing more tickets.
That potential change in strategy comes as statistics show the number of traffic violations cited by Lawrence police has dropped by about 70 percent in the last decade, even as the city’s population has grown.
The city is in the process of re-evaluating its traffic-calming program, which adds physical devices such as speed humps or traffic circles to streets to slow traffic. But officials are also asking whether the police department should do more traffic enforcement.
City Manager Tom Markus said that the list of projects in line for traffic calming is long, and that there’s not nearly enough funding available for all of them. Markus said law enforcement has to be part of how the city deals with its traffic problems, too.
“I think we’ve gone down a path of thinking that traffic is going to be dealt with with physical improvements, and sometimes it will be, but the reality is there isn’t much funding available for that,” Markus said.
The city currently allocates $200,000 annually for traffic calming projects, and 20 recommended traffic calming projects remain unfunded, according to the city’s website. As that list has grown, the number of traffic citations being issued has generally been going down. Even as Lawrence’s population has increased, the number of traffic violations police are citing annually is tens of thousands lower than it was a decade ago.
From 2007 to 2017, the number of traffic violations cited annually by Lawrence police decreased by close to 30,000, or by about 70 percent, according to the city’s 2016 annual financial report and 2017 numbers provided to the Journal-World by the police department. In that same time period, parking violations issued annually by officers dropped by about 84,000, or by about 90 percent.
The city tracks the number of violations, rather than the number of tickets. A ticket can contain multiple violations if a driver breaks more than one traffic ordinance in a single incident.
The greatest drop was between 2010 and 2011, when traffic violations went from about 41,000 to 13,000 annually. Traffic violations have generally stayed at the relatively lower levels since that time. Parking violations made a similar shift at that time, dropping from about 86,000 to 30,000 and staying at those lower levels.
Exactly why the drop occurred at that specific time is not clear, but police say that a restructuring of officer duties subsequently occurred in 2012.
Officer Derrick Smith, a spokesman for the department, said in an email to the Journal-World that until 2012, the department had a full-time traffic unit, which was responsible for a significant amount of traffic enforcement and accident investigation. He said that in 2012, due to declining numbers on patrol and a need for additional manpower, the members of the traffic unit were folded back into patrol. He said that since then, the department has not had any officers whose sole duty is traffic enforcement.
“I would suspect this is the cause for the decrease in traffic citations being issued,” Smith said. “Traffic enforcement is now handled primarily by officers assigned to patrol, which means it is mixed in with all the other responsibilities assigned to a patrol officer, which can be numerous.”
When asked if there was another factor that caused the shift in the trends to happen in 2011, before the traffic unit was reassigned, Smith said the department had no additional information to provide on the subject.
The revenue generated from the violations issued by Lawrence police is not specifically tracked. The city does track revenue from the Municipal Court, but Municipal Court Manager Vicki Stanwix said that number includes both criminal and traffic violations, including revenue from the Lawrence police department, the University of Kansas Police Department and violations initiated by the city prosecutor’s office. For 2017, the Municipal Court’s revenue was about $1.9 million, according to unaudited numbers on the city’s open government website.
The city’s traffic calming policy was enacted in 2005, and makes recommendations regarding additions such as speed humps depending on traffic volume and median speeds on the roadway. In a memo to the City Commission regarding the policy, Markus noted that administration of the policy as written is extremely resource-intensive and the program needs to be re-evaluated to determine whether it is accomplishing the intended goals.
Transportation Engineer Amanda Sahin said the list of approved traffic calming projects gets longer annually and that some areas have been on the list awaiting improvements for more than 10 years. Sahin said that clearly something isn’t working and that the city needs to take a more holistic approach, including not only traffic engineering but also speed enforcement and education.
“The current policy really only focuses on engineering solutions and doesn’t deal with the other things that might have a larger impact than putting speed humps on one street,” Sahin said.
As far as what will happen to the unfunded traffic calming projects on the list, Sahin said that is undetermined and will be part of the discussion. The memo states that once drafted, the policy will be presented to the Transportation Commission for feedback and public input before going to the City Commission for final review. Sahin said the city wants to have the new traffic calming policy in place by the end of this year.
Regarding the level of traffic enforcement, Markus said that discussion could happen in the context of the traffic-calming re-evaluation as well the city’s budget discussions this spring. When asked if increasing enforcement would take hiring more officers, Markus said he thinks it’s a matter of priorities.
“I would just say that within the police department, it’s a matter of priorities, and that we may need more traffic law enforcement to go along with other ways that we try to calm traffic in the community,” Markus said.