Who Will Pay the Tickets for Self-Driving Cars?

My little neighborhood in southeast Texas is the epitome of a small town. Most of the city lies on a man-made island, created by cutting a boat channel through a small peninsula. It has a beach feel and the citizens pride themselves on their tricked-out golf carts and countless parties throughout the year.

We also have our own police force… which can be an issue.

One of our fearless protectors recently stopped me for running a stop sign. I didn’t roll through it or tap my brakes. I blasted through the intersection. There’s no question I broke the law. But the stop sign sits a mere 11 feet and a short right turnrn from the next stop sign.

No one stops at this intersection. The police officer who stopped me knows this. Which is why he was sitting at the second intersection. At 5:15 a.m. With no other cars in sight. It was just him and the ducks hanging out as I rolled up to the second stop sign. I waited for him to move and, when he didn’t, I pulled out. Then he stopped me and gave me a $215 ticket (plus $75 court fee) for the violation.

I quickly paid the ticket because I clearly broke the law. But I’m still annoyed.

Given that it was the 26th of the month, and I know that town revenue was down a bit because I go to the city meetings, I’m guessing I was part of the effort to boost income.

So that’s the reality right now, but in the years to come, things will be very different.

The world of traffic, and traffic citations, will change dramatically as we adopt self-driving and driverless vehicles

Though it’s a bit off before they become widespread, as self-driving cars hit the roads cities and counties won’t be able to count on revenue from scofflaws like me. And that’s going to be yet another problem for our public officials to address.

Cities generate significant revenue from traffic violations. In Colorado, such revenue accounts for 4% of city budgets, with some towns bringing in 30% of their annual budgets.

And then there are court costs. In Texas, roughly 80% of court costs go to the state and are then spent on various things like the victims’ compensation fund and retirement funds. The monies that stick around at the local level pay for the judiciary and also top up the general revenue fund.

The split changes from state to state, but the general premise remains.

This money grab, er, share, will quickly end when I can push a button, stop paying close attention to the road, and suddenly become a very lawful driver. Cities and states will lose significant revenue that they use to fund things totally unrelated to traffic law enforcement.

The first reaction might be to increase the fees levied on those who insist on driving themselves, or haven’t yet upgraded to self-driving vehicles. This will quickly become an attack on the poor, since those with fewer resources will most likely be the last to adopt the new technology.

I don’t expect my little town, or any town for that matter, to celebrate its shrinking budget and correspondingly cut its staff. Instead, I’m guessing they’ll find new ways to squeeze tax, fee, and fine dollars out of the population.

While those changes will lift the burden off of bad drivers like myself, it means yet another round of higher taxes at the local level, which will be harder to avoid than traffic tickets.

Rodney Johnson

Follow me on Twitter @RJHSDent