There’s Still Nothing Special About a Million NYPD Traffic Summonses

To read the Daily News analysis of 2012 summons data, you’d think NYPD has reckless driving completely under control. While the story throws out a lot of purportedly high figures, as usual the tabloid’s perspective is distorted by the windshield.

NYPD may have stopped as few as 19,119 speeding drivers in city neighborhoods in 2012. Overall traffic enforcement was down 20 percent from four years prior. Photo: Daily News

NYPD issued a total of 1,020,754 moving violations last year [PDF]. That’s down slightly from 2011 (1,062,889 total), and a marked drop from other recent years — roughly 1.2 million per year from FY ’05 through FY ’08. And as we’ve reported before, merely counting tickets is not helpful in measuring the extent to which motorists are breaking traffic laws.

NYPD wrote 71,305 speeding summonses in 2012 (down from 76,493 in 2011). We asked analyst Charles Komanoff for his estimate of how many instances of speeding there are in NYC in a year, based on the Transportation Alternatives 2009 finding that 39 percent of city motorists clocked with radar guns and speed cameras were speeding.

There are roughly 24 billion motor vehicle miles traveled per year citywide, says Komanoff. “If the average trip is four miles, we have six billion motor vehicle trips per year. If 20 percent of those trips have at least one ‘speeding moment’ — halving TA’s 39 percent figure, to account for study bias toward arterials — then 1.2 billion trips include speeding.”

Seventy-one thousand speeding summonses for 1.2 billion “speeding moment” trips would equate to just six summonses for every 100,000 trips during which a driver exceeds the speed limit, Komanoff says. Even with a significant margin of error, that’s a lot of motorists getting away with putting others at risk.

For some idea of how enforcement stacks up against violations in a specific neighborhood, our back-of-envelope calculation for Manhattan’s 34th Precinct found that, in Inwood alone, 5.3 million drivers a year could be ticketed for speeding, again based on TA’s 39 percent figure. The 34th Precinct issued 52 speeding summonses in 2012.

There’s more. The News reported that 52,186 speeding tickets were issued on highways. If that figure is counted among the 71,305 total, in 2012 NYPD stopped just 19,119 motorists for speeding through neighborhoods.

A 2012 TA report found that between 1995 and 2009, 60 percent of fatal New York City pedestrian and cyclist crashes with known causes were in part the result of motorists breaking traffic laws, according to data from the state Department of Transportation. In crashes where pedestrians were seriously injured or killed and causes were identified, driver inattention was a factor in 36 percent, failure to yield in 25 percent, and speeding in 20 percent.

Motorists who disregard the law are not victims. Yet according to the Daily News, it’s law-breaking drivers who are being “hit” and “clobbered,” by NYPD. Except when they’re not.

“Wow, a million violations, quotas are alive and well. The guys gotta write tickets,” said one motorist. “I never get hit, I’m a retired detective.”

  • Anonymous

    I like data, but I don’t think these back of the envelope calculations about speeding cars are meaningful in themselves.
    It’s unknown how many “speeding moments” represent a driver exceeding the limit by a few mph (within the margin of error of radar measurement.) It’s the tail of the distribution, representing the moments of egregious speeding, that is of most interest.

    The default position of many drivers is that enforcement targets the easy tickets, so you get a lot of tickets for people driving 38 mph, but does little to discourage the psychopaths driving 80 mph on residential streets.  It raises revenue, but does little to increase safety.  Given the enforcement patterns in other areas of city life, this is not a totally unreasonable assumption.

    It would be useful to look at the same metric calculated above for other
    large cities, and to compare the relative amount of enforcement, and
    the relative amount of death, injury, and property damage caused by
    This type of comparison would help to answer the question of whether greater speed limit enforcement produces safer streets.

  • Anonymous

    We should give an award to the 110th Precinct in Queens for giving out twice as many speeding tickets as an other precinct.  Perhaps Streetsblog could do a piece illustrating the secret to their success?

  • Joe R.

    @J_12:disqus We have a large pool of data from back in the days when we had the national 55 mph speed limit which suggests not only does speeding enforcement not increase safety, but it actually makes things worse when the police cause crashes chasing down speeders. The reasons are pretty much as you suggest. Police will typically go after someone doing maybe 40 mph in a 30 mph zone because 10 to 15 mph over the limit constitutes the vast majority of speeders the police see. They generally ignore anyone doing about 10 mph over the limit or less, and the people doing truly dangerous speeds are an outlier whom the police rarely see, and often can’t ticket even when they do (how do you catch an 80 mph speeder on city streets without putting lots of bystanders in danger?).

    A second reason speeding enforcement doesn’t work is because in many cases the way we set limits has no relation to the speed it is safe to drive at. Back when limits were set at the 85% percentile (on local streets), or 95% percentile (on highways), those who were significantly over the limit really were driving dangerously fast. This let police focus solely on this segment. Nowadays with many roads having “legislated” speed limits which have no bearing on how fast it’s safe to drive on these roads, speeding enforcement usually catches many drivers who would never be involved in crashes due to excessive speed. This is particularly relevant to NYC where the citywide 30 mph speed limit is technically about 10 or 15 mph too low for some of our arterials. If we want to make speeding enforcement meaningful, we can do one of two things. Either raise the speed limits to be more in line with speeds most drivers safely travel on these roads, or redesign the roads to get the 85th percentile speed down under 30 mph. The latter probably makes more sense given the high numbers of vulnerable users on our streets. The idea in all cases is that someone going enough over the speed limit to merit a summons really is driving dangerously fast.

  • Anonymous

    @J_12:disqus OK then, let’s use 40 mph as the threshold for dangerous speeding (as if 38 and 35 and even 30 mph don’t endanger people and discourage cycling and walking). In the 2009 T.A. study, seven out of eight violators were clocked at 40 mph or less. So keeping the math in Brad’s post but dividing by eight, we have 50 speeding summonses (rather than 8) for every 100,000 auto trips during which the driver broke the limit. Wow, I feel better already!

  • Anonymous

    And this doesn’t even count the billions of instances of improper turns, failure to yield, red-light running, illegal double parking that surely happen every year.

  • Joe R.

    One thing I would like to see a lot more enforcement of is aggressive driving. By that I’m referring to when people do things like change lanes 6 times in one block just to gain one or two places at the next red light. I see this all the time, including passing in the far right “parking” lane in places where there are no parked cars, like bus stops or fire hydrants. This is VERY dangerous to cyclists as a car can cut across your path at any time. It’s also none too safe for other motorists. Instead of cracking down on tinted windows or not wearing seat belts, focus on the truly dangerous stuff that gets people killed. Aggressive driving in this city is out of control. Not only does it put lives in danger, but everyone trying to gain one or two places just ends up slowing everyone down because you invariably need to merge back into the traffic stream.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “NYPD issued a total of 1,020,754 moving violations last year.”
    The implication in the post is that this is a small number.  I, however, find it shockingly high, particularly given how unlikely violators are to be ticketed for a particular offense. 

    It’s almost 30 tickets per police officer.  There were less than 2 million vehicles registered in the city in 2012 according to NY DMV.  It’s one ticket for every two vehicles, although of course those from outside the city drive here.
    All these tickets make me wonder what all the other drivers are doing out there.

    And it really shows that automated enforcement — and incentives from insurance companies — is the way to go.

  • Anonymous

    I know writing traffic tickets is not the primary function of all police officers, but still, 30 tickets per officer per year is only about one per officer every two weeks. What are they doing the rest of the time? 🙂

  • Anonymous

    There were only 1,129 citations for following too closely–the fourth lowest number of any type of citation–despite the fact that this is *consistently* the second-leading cause of serious injuries or deaths in traffic crashes, according to the NYPD’s own statistics:
    Could we pretty please have some symmetry between known causes of accidents and the enforcement of laws intended to prevent them?

  • The thing that bothered me most about the Daily News analysis is not so much one set of numbers or another, but the overall tone. The language suggests that ticketing drivers is just another “gotcha” tactic by the police and city to generate revenue and hit quotas.


    – “Drivers don’t have a prayer,” as opposed to the terrified pedestrians they mow down.
    – “It’s way too much. They ticket like crazy.”
    – Drivers “got clobbered” for having tinted windows, which is illegal.
    – “Cell phone scofflaws definitely want to avoid the 109th Precinct in Queens” rather than, say, not use their cellphone while driving.
    – Labeling the 75th Precinct in East New York as “ticket-happy” just because it meets the low bar set by other precincts.
    – “Midtown traffic was also a wallet-killer.” Because, you know, it’s not like there’s any way to avoid the high expense of a ticket.
    – And the idea that “heavy-footed” drivers “got hit” with tickets, rather than earned them through their law-breaking.

    This kind of language is what leads James Vacca to wage his campaign of righteousness on behalf of the city’s put-upon class of “real” New Yorkers who drive. It’s also what keeps biking on the sidewalk a criminal offense, but allows for a driver who’s just crushed a woman on the sidewalk to go home for dinner.

    Change the media, change the culture…

  • Frequent Streetsblog Commenter

    To Larry’s point, my cop buddy says that the average cop writes 15 tickets a month, most often broken down as 3 moving violations, 1 criminal court violation, and the rest for parking violations.

    To Doug’s point, he agreed that the NYPD is run to generate income for the city, not to stop malefactors.

  • Anonymous

    The “Taxi of Tomorrow” should be speed governed to top out at the street speed limit within the 5 boros via GPS.  Acceleration should be limited too, by proper engineering of drive train. 

    With so many cabs on the road, it would be impossible to speed. 

  • Anonymous

    The point is not to draw an arbitrary distinction at X mph and say  that if we could have better enforcement to prevent speeding above X, it would  be better.
    Instead, I am saying that we need to compare the amount of speeding enforcement in NYC with comparable cities, and try to test whether there is difference in street safety that can be attributed to this enforcement.
    As a knee jerk reaction, I would say that cars driving too fast on city streets are dangerous and more enforcement of speed limits would make the streets safer.
    But in reality, it might be true that most speeding does not significantly increase risk of crashes, and instead it is things like reckless driving, running lights and stop signs, failure to signal, etc, which should be the focus.  Hard to say …

  • Guest

    I would really like to see how the tickets at the 34th were distributed throughout the year. One per week, as some minimum quota?

    As for comparing tickets to vehicles registered in NYC, very many of the drivers on our streets come from elsewhere (Long Island, Westchester, Connecticut, New Jersey, while an unacceptably large number of vehicles that do reside in the five boroughs are illegally registered elsewhere (particularly Penn) to avoid paying higher registration and insurance.


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