Adding insult to injury – here’s why police write tickets at accident scenes

Law enforcement agencies receive only a fraction of fines from traffic tickets, so citations written at accident scenes aren’t to pay for the call.
Law enforcement agencies receive only a fraction of fines from traffic tickets, so citations written at accident scenes aren’t to pay for the call.

Question: Why is it that you get a ticket from law enforcement if you get into an accident? To pay for them to come out? What if only one party called, shouldn't that party get the ticket for requesting their service?

Answer: At a fundamental level, law enforcement officers write tickets at crashes because they see evidence of a traffic violation.

The ticket isn’t a form of reimbursement to the agency for the time it takes to respond to the crash. Actually, a law enforcement agency receives only a tiny fraction of a traffic ticket. The rest gets assigned to other various state and local accounts.

But why write the ticket? Isn’t the cost of repairing a damaged car enough of a punishment? It seems like the cliché “adding insult to injury” was created just for this situation. If you’ve ever been in these circumstances, you might have thought, “You didn’t need to write me a ticket to tell me I goofed up. The giant dent on my fender is already shouting that to me.”

To make sense of why you might get a ticket at a crash, we have to look beyond the crash itself.

At some point in the future, two opposing insurance companies will begin arguing about who will pay to get the cars fixed. They may even be debating who will cover an injury that wasn’t reported at the time of the crash.

They’ll make a request for the police report to try and find evidence that the other company’s client was responsible for the collision. If, based on the evidence of an investigation, the officer issues an infraction to one of the drivers, it’s a pretty clear indicator of who was at fault.

The insurance company for the driver who caused the crash pays for the repairs and jacks up the insurance rates. The other driver, hopefully, avoids any insurance penalties. You could say that the traffic infraction was issued not to penalize the guilty driver, but to avoid penalizing the innocent driver.

I don’t have any data to support my hypothesis, but I suspect that officers issue infractions at one-car crashes less frequently than they do at multi-car crashes. Baring some unusual circumstances, it’s obvious who is responsible in a single-vehicle crash.

Keep in mind that officers have discretion as to when to issue an infraction, and even in a single-car crash, a serious violation will more likely result in a ticket.

And just to be clear, I’ve been working from the assumption that we’re talking about common traffic violations, such as failure to signal or following too closely. A serious violation, such impaired driving, is a different story. If an officer chose not to make an arrest in that situation, I expect there would be some serious explaining required.

In regard to the last part of the question about the person who requests law enforcement being responsible for paying for the request, I see where you’re coming from, but let’s look at it from a broader perspective. If there is a possibility that it will cost something to request help from the police, people will be less likely to call.

I’ll give you a non-traffic-related example: If you get lost or injured on a hike in Washington and you call for Search and Rescue, they’ll find you and bring you out of the woods for no charge. However, there are a handful of states that bill people for their rescue. In states that bill for rescue services, there have been cases where people delay calling for needed help out of fear of the cost of that help. That puts peoples’ lives at risk.

In a non-injury two car crash, it might not be a big deal if no one calls the police. A collision report is only required if there is more than $1,000 in damage or someone was injured. And a report can be completed online if you don’t call the police.

But let’s say you think the other driver might be impaired. Now do you call the police? Would you still call the police if it might cost you something? What if you know you can’t afford it? And if you decide not to call the police because of the cost, and then that possibly impaired driver gets in a more serious crash, would you regret not making that call?

The costs of emergency services are borne by all citizens collectively so that an individual citizen that needs those services isn’t burdened by worrying about cost in the midst of an emergency. After a collision or any other emergency situation, it’s important that the people involved, no matter their economic level, have full access to the appropriate emergency responders.

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit Ask a question.