First there is the heart-stopping panic as you see the flashing lights behind your car. Then your pulse races as you realize they're flashing just for you.
Later, after the officer has written the ticket and you're squaring yourself with the law, there is likely to be even more shock, especially if you have cruised along merrily without a traffic citation for several years. The total cost of your ticket will be more--sometimes much more--than you'd ever guess.
Say you are caught for running a red light. The fine is $100. But the cash flow from your pocket doesn't stop there.
There is also an additional cost called the penalty assessment--in this case, $170. If you run a red light in Los Angeles County (as in some other locales), another $1 will be added to offset the cost of night court. Grand total: $271.
That is, unless you've had a prior violation or choose to attend traffic school or were driving in a so-called safety-enhancement double-fine zone, any of which will tack additional fines onto your total.
Whatever the final tab, your citation has granted you membership in a not-so-elite club of millions of California motorists.
In 1998, there were more than 5.6 million filings statewide for traffic misdemeanors and infractions, reports the Judicial Council of California, the court system's policymaking body. That doesn't include parking violations or felony traffic violations such as those involving drunk driving.
So why are these fines so high? Who decides how high they will go? And where does all that money wind up?
Base fines--the first $100 of that $271 red-light ticket--have not risen much overall in the last decade, says Courtney Tucker, a staff analyst for the Judicial Council. The increase has come in the form of higher penalty assessments, which currently allow fines of $17 for every $10 of base fine.
The increased penalty assessments, which took effect in 1992 as a result of state legislation, were part of a court reorganization effort. Raising the penalty assessments "was substantially an economic decision meant to put more state money into the court system," says former Assemblyman Phillip Isenberg, a Sacramento Democrat who sponsored the legislation. "The county government used to be the primary support of the court system."
Besides higher penalty assessments, other factors contribute to costlier tickets, such as double-fine zones. These safety-enhancement zones are meant to make people drive more cautiously in dangerous areas. Two examples are Ortega Highway (California 74) between Interstate 5 and the Riverside-Orange County line and the Golden Gate Bridge linking San Francisco and Marin counties.
Traffic school also results in additional costs.
"It used to be you could go to traffic school and the fine would be waived," says Glenn Mahler, chairman of the Traffic Advisory Committee for the Judicial Council and a Superior Court judge in Orange County. No longer. Now the state charges $24 for drivers who choose to attend traffic school and the school also charges a fee, typically $20 to $35.
If you have prior convictions, you may be charged a $10 administrative assessment fee, which the court levies to record those incidents or to notify the Department of Motor Vehicles about license restrictions. If you have a violation for driving under the influence, and are directed to a drug and alcohol program, there will be an additional assessment of up to $100. And if you're tardy in paying your ticket, late charges may apply.
Setting the fines--officially known as the Uniform Bail and Penalty Schedule--begins with the Judicial Council of California. Its Traffic Advisory Committee meets about 10 times a year, says Tucker, the council analyst. The last update of the bail and penalty schedule took effect Jan. 1.
When a schedule is drafted, it is circulated to judicial offices and posted on the Internet at http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov so that the public may comment.
In September, the schedule will once again go through a proposal, comment, recommendation and approval process, and changes will take effect next Jan. 1. Among other issues, Tucker says, the committee must take into account any new legislation regarding motor vehicle violations that would necessitate a change in the bail and penalty schedule.
Not surprisingly, motor vehicle violations bring in millions of dollars for government. Penalty assessments alone for motor vehicle violations generate about $112 million a year, says Sandy Harrison, a spokesman for the Department of Finance. In addition to helping the courts, the money funds the training of school bus drivers, provides assistance for crime victims and helps pay for educational support to police officers, public defenders and prosecutors, Harrison says.
The court system divides up the funds with the state, county and city. For that $271 red-light ticket, for instance, here's where the money goes, says Sandra Bernardo, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Municipal Court: state, $53.42; court system, $24.70; county, $49.39; city, $142.49; offsetting night-court costs, $1.
Do these fines serve any purpose beyond generating revenue, such as compelling us to be more cautious behind the wheel?
Common sense would suggest that drivers who are aware of the fines may be more careful, but unless they have been cited for a particular violation, or know someone who has been, many are unaware of the potential costs.
And fines might not be the only way, or the most effective way, to curb bad driving. Officials at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Arlington, Va., point to a number of Scandinavian studies that examined the relationship of driving under the influence of alcohol, the sanctions imposed and the effect on the number of offenses. Researchers found that the certainty of punishment is more important in curbing offenses than the severity of that punishment.
Good Carma is a guide to automotive-related health and consumer issues. Kathleen Doheny can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Navigating the Web to find the current Uniform Bail and Penalty Schedule takes a bit of doing. Here's how:
Go to the Judicial Council of California Web site, http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov. Click "Reference" on the top tool bar and then scroll to "Courts: Administration." Under that, choose the last entry, "Uniform Bail and Penalty Schedules for 1999."
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What It Will Cost You
Here are some examples of what you will pay for a sampling of traffic citations and how the fees are broken down:
Offense: Fleeing peace officer/causing injury
Base Fine: $2,000
Added penalty: $3,400
Offense: False evidence of financial responsibility
Base Fine: $750
Added penalty: $1,275
Offense: Unlawful forgery of disabled placard
Base Fine: $500
Added penalty: $850
Offense: Driving under the influence
Base Fine: $390
Added penalty: $663
Offense: Engaging in speed contests
Base Fine: $360
Added penalty: $612
Offense: Driving with suspended/revoked license
Base Fine: $300
Added penalty: $510
Offense: Running a red light
Base Fine: $100
Added penalty: $170
Offense: Speeding (up to 26 mph over limit)
Base Fine: $100
Added penalty: $170
Offense: Speeding (up to 15 mph over limit)
Base Fine: $25
Added penalty: $51
Source: Uniform Bail and Penalty Schedule of the Vehicle Code