Forum Editorial: How serious are we about traffic safety?
Fargo speeders have been getting a bargain for years. The penalty for driving 15 mph over the speed limit, for example, was a mere $10.
Blowing through a stop sign carried a $20 fine. Distracted driving or using a wireless communication device while driving was punishable by a fine of $100 — a light tap considering the potentially lethal consequences.
Those paltry fines are hardly enough to serve as a deterrent. Recognizing the penalties’ gross inadequacy, the Fargo City Commission has doubled fines for a slate of traffic offenses.
That’s all good as far as it goes.
The city couldn’t further raise fines because, under a new law, cities were given the flexibility to double fines — but go no higher — than what's established under state law.
We applaud the willingness of North Dakota legislators to trust local officials to decide for themselves how steep fines should be to make their streets safe for motorists and pedestrians. The latitude for cities to double their traffic fines came after years of stubborn resistance to the idea — odd, given all the platitudes we hear about local governments being closest to their constituents and therefore best-equipped to set local policy.
Hypocrisy is never in short supply.
Meanwhile, we’re puzzled and frankly dismayed that Fargo officials didn’t go further in doubling fines for certain traffic offenses.
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Maybe they were afraid that an across-the-board doubling of fines would seem arbitrary and provoke a backlash in Bismarck.
Whatever the reason, it allows some dangerous driving behaviors to continue with fines so light that they fail their critical function of serving as a deterrent to carelessness.
Take drag racing as an example. It’s difficult to imagine a more flagrant and dangerous traffic offense. The penalty in Fargo remains $100. Why not double that?
The same holds for exhibition driving, with the penalty remaining $50, and racing, with a fine left at $100. Why not double those?
Similarly, why not increase the fine for having an open container, which remains $50?
Fargo Police Chief David Todd told city commissioners that “traffic is one of the biggest complaints I get.”
The chief pointed out that Fargo’s speeding fines lag far behind those in neighboring Minnesota and South Dakota. The penalty for driving 11 to 15 mph over the speed limit in North Dakota was $10, plus $2 for each mph over the speed limit. In Fargo, those penalties have doubled.
But in Minnesota, the fine would be $140 and in South Dakota $125.
As Fargo grows, traffic volumes will increase. So will traffic safety risks and the need for adequate enforcement. Therefore, the need for effective deterrence against careless and reckless driving will also be heightened.
A national analysis in 2016 found that fine increases between 50% and 100% are associated with a 15% decrease in violations and that fine increases of up to 50% do not influence violations.
Importantly, the analysis found, an increase of fines was associated with a 5% to 10% reduction in crashes.
City officials have taken a step in the right direction. Beyond increasing fines to the fullest extent allowed by state law, the city should do more to educate and remind drivers of the dangers of speeding, as well as their responsibility to drive safely.
And lawmakers in Bismarck should take their foot off the brake in allowing cities to set their own traffic fines.