Are Seattle’s motorists just driving better? Maybe, but there are other plausible theories to account for a dramatic drop in traffic citations issued by the Seattle Police Department.

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Have you noticed how much better Seattle drivers have gotten lately — more law-abiding and polite?

Me neither. But that’s one possible, if far-fetched, explanation for why traffic tickets are way down in Seattle.

In 2016, Seattle Police Department officers ticketed for just over 39,000 traffic violations, according to my analysis of Seattle Municipal Court records. That’s the lowest number so far this decade, and about 15,000 fewer than in 2015 — a 28 percent decline in one year.

The data do not include tickets issued by cameras, which, by state law, are processed like parking tickets rather than traffic infractions. Seattle has had red-light cameras in place since 2006.

The downward trend in ticketing is consistent across many types of infractions. Speeding violations, for example, fell by 3,500 last year, while 1,100 fewer folks were nabbed for breezing through a stop sign. Cellphone violations were cut by more than half, although that was before the state’s stricter cellphone law went into effect. And despite the epidemic of gridlock downtown, hardly any drivers paid a price for “blocking the box” — just 69 citations, down from 101 in 2015.

It’s not because people in Seattle are driving less. Since 2012, after a period of decline, average daily traffic has risen steadily, according to the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT). In 2015, which is the most recent data available, traffic volumes were at their highest level since 2006.

So why did the number of traffic citations nosedive last year?

I met with a group of folks at police headquarters to discuss this trend in ticketing. And yes, someone did throw out the possibility that citations are down, in part, because Seattle drivers got better.

But some other suggestions seemed — to me, at least — more plausible. For example, officers in the traffic division have taken on more responsibilities recently, pulling them away from regular duties.

“We have more activities that we use our traffic enforcement vehicles for,” said Sgt. Pete Verhaar of the Police Department’s crime-analysis unit. “Demonstrations, parades, special events, dignitary visits — in 2016, being the election year that it was, there were a lot more of those events going on.”

Collision investigations are another time suck. For about a year and a half, traffic officers have been tasked with this additional responsibility. An investigation can take a motorcycle officer off the street from 30 minutes to an hour and a half, depending on the severity of the collision, according to Verhaar.

Sean Whitcomb, Seattle police’s public-affairs director, notes that ticketing is just one aspect of enforcement. The data don’t capture, for example, when an officer issues a warning without writing a ticket (that information isn’t available). Also, he says the Police Department has become more efficient in how it deploys its resources, using data analysis to target enforcement areas.

“For all we know, we’re actually moving the needle in those areas where we need to,” Whitcomb said, “putting our traffic officers in those problem areas where we’ve identified specific issues … instead of just being scattershot.”

And Verhaar points out that unsafe driving and speeding were not among the top law-enforcement concerns for most city residents, according to a large survey conducted by Seattle University’s Department of Criminal Justice in 2016. The survey shows just 10 neighborhoods where bad driving ranked among the top five issues.

“The thing from an analytical standpoint that I would ask is: what is the result of less tickets? Have injuries gone up, are there more accidents, are there more deaths?” Verhaar said. “Maybe there’s no need to write more tickets.”

We’ll have to wait for the answers to those questions because 2016 data for traffic fatalities and serious injuries in Seattle aren’t available yet.

There is some relevant research. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management showed that ticketing may have a causal impact on traffic collisions and injuries. Researcher Dara Lee Luca analyzed data on citations and motor-vehicle crash and fatality rates in Massachusetts, and found that more ticketing results in safer driving.

“Overall, the findings of this paper suggest that as unpopular as traffic tickets are among drivers, motorist behavior does respond to tickets,” Luca concluded.

Sgt. Randy Ward, a Seattle Police Department officer, watches as officers pull over motorists on Third Avenue on Thursday.  A downward trend in ticketing by Seattle Police Department is consistent across many types of infractions, a data analysis shows. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)
Sgt. Randy Ward, a Seattle Police Department officer, watches as officers pull over motorists on Third Avenue on Thursday. A downward trend in ticketing by Seattle Police Department is consistent across many types of infractions, a data analysis shows. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

But while enforcement plays a role in traffic and pedestrian safety, it should take a back seat to other approaches, says Gordon Padelford, executive director of the safe-streets advocacy organization Seattle Neighborhood Greenways.

“How do we design our roads so people will naturally drive a safe speed on them?” he said. “Engineering is internationally recognized as the best way to make streets safer.”

Padelford says that enforcement isn’t effective in changing behaviors on streets where pretty much everyone speeds, like Seattle’s Lake City Way and Rainier Avenue. “If a road design isn’t working, you can’t enforce your way out of it.”

Even so, he acknowledges that engineering isn’t the solution to every traffic problem, such as distracted or impaired driving. Enforcement, as well as education, play critical roles here.

He also advocates for a heavier reliance on automated-ticketing devices like red-light cameras, which are more effective in changing driving behavior because they ticket all day long. They also eliminate the possibility of police bias.

Seattle is two years into its plan, called Vision Zero, to reach zero fatal and serious crashes by 2030. In 2015, there were 164 such incidents, according to SDOT.