Metro Detroit speed traps; keeping you safe or generating revenue?
10:45 PM, Feb 12, 2013
5:31 AM, Feb 13, 2013
DETROIT (WXYZ) - Why has the National Motorists Association named metro Detroit one of the worst areas in the nation for speed traps?
7 Action News Investigator Scott Lewis is following the money looking for answers. And he's talking to a retired cop who says he knows how to put the brakes on speed traps for good.
So, are police writing tickets in certain areas of metro Detroit to keep you safe, or is it all about the revenue?
On any given day you can see a Ferndale police officer working a speed trap on eastbound 8 Mile Road near Woodward. What's interesting and what sparked complaints from viewers is that the officer is not setting up in Ferndale. He's on the Detroit side of 8 Mile, sitting inside the Detroit city limits.
Thirty miles away Romulus police are constantly working another hot spot on Eureka Road behind Detroit Metropolitan Airport. Writing tickets here is like shooting fish in a barrel. The road is three lanes and semi-rural, but the speed limit is posted at 40 miles per hour.
These are just two spots out of many that have been identified by the National Motorists Association as speed traps.
But Ferndale's police chief says the criticism is not warranted.
"The easiest way that the public can stay out of this fray is follow the speed limit," said Chief Timothy Collins.
Collins says speed enforcement in his city is mostly about preventing serious accidents and reducing crime with police presence.
But Jim Walker from the National Motorists Association disagrees. "It's strictly for revenue," Walker told 7 Action News.
Walker says many speed limits are set artificially low to make it easy for police to write tickets and he says that creates uneven speeds, which actually makes driving more dangerous.
The National Motorists Association logs complaints about speed traps from people like you and posts them on its website. The 7 Action News Investigators posted those sites on an interactive map.
When people are ticketed in these places, the routine is almost always the same. When the offending driver goes to court, they are offered a deal to plead guilty to impeding traffic and pay a fine on the spot. If they agree, they get no points on their driving record. Most people take the deal because they know they're not going to win and they don't want their insurance rates to go up.
"I've been in this country 81 years. I'm a Korean War veteran and I know that I don't stand a ghost of a chance. I'm intelligent enough to know that," one frustrated driver told a judge in Ferndale after being ticketed on that stretch of 8 Mile Road in Detroit.
Many drivers say even though they take the deal it leaves them with a sour taste in their mouths toward the police.
"I'm going to pay these tickets but you know it's a shame that the city has to do this to people because they don't have any money. It's a shame before God," another ticketed driver told the judge in Ferndale.
It's perfectly legal for Ferndale police to write tickets on the Detroit side of 8 Mile Road. Police have enforcement powers in neighboring jurisdictions, and according to Chief Collins, two of the three lanes on the Detroit side are actually part of Ferndale.
It's legal, but is it right?
7 Action News asked Chief Collins to respond to critics who say the type of enforcement his department is doing along 8 Mile Road is more about revenue than it is about safety.
"I would be foolish to say that there was not a revenue component of this," Collins said. "But if you're saying that we're going out there to make the public pay for our law enforcement, I don't think that's a fair assessment."
The speed limit on 8 Mile is set by the State of Michigan, and they're considering raising it.
7 Action News asked Jim Walker to do a speed study where Ferndale Police are writing all those tickets to see what the proper speed limit should be.
He said only 28 percent of the one hundred cars he clocked were going the speed limit.
"That tells you that the posted speed limit is wrong," Walker said.
Under Michigan law, speed limits are supposed to be set at the 85th percentile. That is the speed at which 85 percent of the cars in the study are going. In Walker's study, the 85th percentile was 47 miles per hour. Based on that, he says the proper speed limit on 8 Mile road should be 45 or 50 miles per hour.
Kurt Skarjune, a retired police officer from a Detroit suburb believes that a lot of traffic enforcement in Michigan is done to make money rather than to keep people safe.
"It's like a dirty secret. But it's really not a secret, but it certainly is dirty, and somebody needs to do something about it," Skarjune said.
Skarjune thinks the way to stop speed traps is to follow the money from traffic tickets, then re-direct where it's going.
Under Michigan law, police can write speeding tickets under state law or local ordinance. If they use state law, most of the money goes to libraries. But under local ordinances about seventy percent of the fine money goes directly to the local court and municipality.
It will probably come as no surprise to you that virtually all cities write under local ordinances.
He says if money from traffic fines went to the state and was then redistributed to cities for things like fighting crime and hiring police officers, speed traps would disappear.
"There would be no incentive for localities and municipalities to use their police officers as revenue agents," said Skarjune.
But Chief Collins in Ferndale disagrees.
"I believe that if the locals are doing the work, then the local government should get the revenue," Collins told 7 Action News.
A few years back Skarjune sent letters to 30 lawmakers trying to sell his revenue reforms, but was sadly disappointed by the response.
"Much to my dismay, of the 30 letters that I wrote, I got zero response," Skarjune said.
But the 7 Action News Investigators are taking action.
We contacted State Senator Rick Jones who is pushing for legislation to end speed traps. Jones agreed to meet with Skarjune. He sat down with him at his Lansing office and listened to his ideas. Skarjune hopes other lawmakers will listen too.
"I just feel sad that our legislators don't just step up to the plate and do the right thing," Skarjune said.
So what do you think? Is enforcement in areas identified as speed traps about safety or is it about raising revenue?
If you're still on the fence, consider what happened when we put a speed gun on a Romulus cop who was working the notorious speed trap behind Detroit Metropolitan Airport. Jim Walker from the National Motorists Association clocked him as he returned to his hiding spot after writing tickets to speeders.
The officer was speeding four out of four times that we clocked him. His highest speed was thirteen miles over the 40 mile per hour limit.
Walker told 7 Action News the officer had no authority to speed.
"If they're just driving from point A to point B they're supposed to follow the same traffic laws as anyone else," Walker said.
And here's the kicker; in Michigan, a small percentage of every traffic fine goes to pay health care for retired state lawmakers; a half-million dollars went for that in fiscal year 2011. Current lawmakers do not get any money from ticket revenue because their defined pension fund was replaced with a 401-K plan.
Senator Jones says he was shocked to hear that ticket money is going to retired lawmakers and he says he will introduce a bill to stop it.
Jones says he sees merit in Kurt Skarjune's revenue idea but he doubts whether there is enough support to pass it.
Skarjune says if people would get involved, instead of just complaining about speed traps, they could change that.
On his website, you can find links to contact your state lawmakers and weigh in on either side of this issue.