Executive Summary

This report summarizes the findings from a study of traffic law enforcement trends in eleven selected jurisdictions across the country. In recent years, the demand for law enforcement services has increased, while the resources available to provide those services has remained relatively stagnant. There is a perception in the traffic safety community that, in many instances, relatively fewer resources are being allocated to traffic safety enforcement as law enforcement agencies struggle to meet the many demands placed on them by society.

This study was designed to use objective measures of enforcement activity, such as numbers of traffic citations issued, to address the question of what the actual trends were in traffic law enforcement activity over the past decade, and to supplement that information with input gathered from law enforcement personnel.

To that end, eleven law enforcement agencies (LEAs) across the country which could provide data on moving traffic violation citations were identified and recruited to participate in this retrospective study. An effort was made to locate sites which represented a variety of types of law enforcement agencies and different regions of the country. LEAs with statewide, county wide and city wide jurisdiction, with adequate data bases, were recruited.

The populations of the jurisdictions served by these LEAs range from approximately 12,000 (Palos Heights, Illinois) to 33,145,121 in the State of California.

Table 1: 
Participating Sites and Law Enforcement Agencies
State of California California Highway Patrol State
State of Delaware Delaware State Police State
State of Florida Florida Highway Patrol State
Douglas County, Colorado Douglas County Sheriff's Office Sheriff
Orange County, Florida Orange County Sheriff's Office Sheriff
Seminole County, Florida Seminole County Sheriff's Office Sheriff
Guilford County, North Carolina Guilford County Sheriff's Department Sheriff
Fairfax County, Virginia Fairfax County Police Department County
San Diego, California San Diego Police Department City
Palos Heights, Illinois Palos Heights Police Department City
Austin, Texas Austin Police Department City

The populations of the jurisdictions served by these LEAs range from approximately 12,000 (Palos Heights, Illinois) to 33,145,121 in the State of California.

The primary emphasis in data collection was to obtain quantitative measures of enforcement activity. The most crucial data element was number of moving violations and /or citations, ideally for the previous ten years and including monthly counts. These data were supplemented by information gathered through discussions with law enforcement officials in each of the jurisdictions. Specific categories of quantitative data are briefly discussed below:

Data collected through discussions with law enforcement personnel are described below:


As indicated earlier, this study attempted to identify trends in activity relating to traffic law enforcement by the participating law enforcement agencies and was not intended to evaluate the effectiveness of the activities in the jurisdictions studied. Due to the relatively small number of LEAs reviewed, the findings should be viewed as trends which might be representative among similar types of law enforcement agencies across the country.

Traffic law enforcement is still considered a top priority by most law enforcement agencies. However, there is an overall declining trend in the number of citations being issued for all types of traffic violations combined. Demands on budgets and personnel have taken a toll on the amount of resources that can be expended for traffic safety. The shortfall in resources has been magnified in recent years. In addition to dealing with increasingly complex criminal issues which law enforcement agencies face today, in most of the jurisdictions studied, enforcement resources have remained stagnant in the face of an increasing population and number of licensed drivers. Generally, with increased driver exposure, there are greater numbers of crashes and the ensuing investigations. These can impact the resources available for other aspects of traffic enforcement.

Within the context of this study, the only category of law enforcement agency which exhibited increases in traffic law enforcement activity as measured by citation volume were sheriff's departments. Three of the four such agencies contacted demonstrated increasing trends of traffic citations. Most agencies of all categories reported that emphasis on traffic enforcement was stimulated by citizen input, rather than other reasons, such as the public good, or reducing the toll in injury and deaths due to traffic crashes. However, it is interesting to note that the only agencies actually exhibiting increasing activity were those where the top administrator was an elected official, possibly feeling a more immediately compelling impetus to respond to public sentiment.

Command emphasis is obviously essential to sustaining traffic law enforcement levels. During times of budget shortfalls or a public safety problem, traffic enforcement is one of the first areas to be cut back. Without the support of senior staff and officials, efforts may decline. And, while dedicated traffic departments and units within an agency may provide a certain enforcement level and continuity to traffic law enforcement efforts, agencies which promote traffic law enforcement duties agency-wide (and among supervisory personnel as well as officers), also can maintain a fairly high enforcement level, as well as endorse the importance of highway safety within the agency.

Many of the jurisdictions studied used grants to supplement local resources for traffic law enforcement. However, some indicated that the grant process was burdensome and that some grant requirements directed enforcement resources away from direct enforcement.

While the rates of traffic-related injuries and fatalities have been declining across the country in recent years, this decline can be attributed to a number of factors: safer vehicles and roads, stronger laws, better public information and education campaigns, as well as law enforcement efforts. However, this decline may have been greater had law enforcement efforts remained steady or had been able to increase to keep pace with the increased number of drivers and miles driven on our nation's roadways.


Traffic law enforcement efforts on the roadways must be increased, but not at the expense of other worthwhile system components. In order to accomplish this and based on the conclusions drawn from this project, we offer the following recommendations.

While motorists are responsible for driving safely, law enforcement agencies are the main means of ensuring that traffic laws are obeyed. The dedication of law enforcement personnel to promote safe driving and to apprehend dangerous drivers assures safer roads. Falling enforcement levels will ultimately threaten public safety. Therefore, it is important that the prevailing downward trend in traffic law enforcement be reversed. For its part, NHTSA intends to share the findings of this and other reports with members of law enforcement as a part of the agency's ongoing dialogue with LEAs to encourage the agencies to enforce traffic safety.

  1. Lacey, J.H.; and Jones, R.K. (1991). Assessment of Changes in DWI Enforcement/Level. DOT HS 807 690. Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.