Have you noticed a recent change for the better among Seattle drivers — less speeding, running red lights and texting behind the wheel?
So something else must be going on to explain this: From 2019 to 2021, the number of traffic infractions issued by Seattle police dropped by 68%. Data from Seattle Municipal Court shows the number of infractions totaled nearly 28,000 in 2019. That fell to about 14,500 in 2020 and then to only 9,000 last year.
And the numbers are still going down. Through June of this year, there have only been about 1,800 infractions, which is one-third the number issued through June 2021.
A decline in driving during the pandemic surely played a role. Seattle Department of Transportation data shows a 36% drop in average daily traffic volumes on Seattle streets and bridges from 2019 to 2020. The data for 2021 is not available yet, although increased levels of congestion last year suggest that volume has bounced back to some degree.
According to Seattle Police Department spokesperson Patrick Michaud, it’s also largely a matter of the department having to allocate limited resources.
“Our department has made no secret of our dangerously low staffing levels,” he said in an email. The department is prioritizing resources on “high-harm and violent crime cases, like domestic violence,” he said.
As of August 2022, SPD’s Traffic Enforcement Unit consists solely of 12 motorcycle officers and three sergeants, which is greatly reduced from 2019 staffing levels when there were 21 officers and three sergeants assigned to the motorcycle unit and 15 officers and two sergeants assigned to traffic cars.
But does a lack of traffic enforcement embolden some drivers to break laws, and does that in turn make the city’s streets more dangerous for everyone — motorists, pedestrians and cyclists alike?
It’s a difficult question to answer, but this much is true: The city’s goal of eliminating traffic deaths, called “Vision Zero,” took a hit in 2021. As The Seattle Times reported in June, last year was the deadliest in terms of traffic-related fatalities in more than a decade. Thirty people were killed on Seattle streets. And 2022 is also shaping up to be a bad year for traffic-related injuries and deaths.
Nearly all types of traffic violations have declined in number. (Note: DUIs are considered criminal cases and are not included among traffic infractions.) Data from Seattle Municipal Court shows that of the 15 most common traffic violations cited in 2021, 14 had dropped in number by at least 40% from 2019.
The most common violation — driving without insurance — was down 63%. Disobeying a traffic-control device (such as traffic signals, street signs and markings) violations fell by 64%. Inattentive driving was down 73%.
The one violation among the top 15 that increased from 2019 to 2021 was speeding 1-5 mph over the limit in a 40 mph and under zone. According to SPD senior communications manager Jonah Spangenthal-Lee, this increase was largely due to the city adding 2,500 new 25 mph speed limit signs along 415 miles of arterial streets in recent years.
These numbers do not include traffic camera violations, which have trended in the opposite direction. In 2021, about 190,500 Seattle motorists were nabbed by a camera, up from 93,000 in 2019. At least some of this spike is due to cameras being installed in additional locations. For example, in 2021, cameras were installed on the West Seattle low bridge to enforce restricted lane access. Cameras are also used to enforce red-light violations as well as speed limits in school zones, transit lane violations, and “blocking the box.”
This increased reliance on camera-based traffic enforcement has some advantages. It requires less of SPD’s limited personnel resources. Cameras also reduce the possibility of police officer bias, including the issue of racial profiling.
But cameras can only enforce certain types of violations — and even then, only where the cameras are installed.
And it’s important to note that even though they’re reduced, SPD’s traffic operations continue. The department typically focuses on high-traffic arterials and areas where there have been complaints from the community. For example, an enforcement emphasis on Rainier Avenue South in June resulted in 43 citations for various violations, according to SPD.