COLUMBUS — Traffic cases in Ohio courts have dropped by nearly one-third over the past decade, but experts differ on whether drivers deserve much credit.
The state recorded its fewest-ever traffic fatalities last year and seat-belt use hit an all-time high of 84 percent of all drivers and passengers.
Drunken-driving cases are down markedly, which safety advocates hope is evidence their message and high-profile enforcement efforts are taking hold.
But Columbus police say they're issuing fewer speeding tickets and traffic citations for another reason: They have fewer officers.
Staffing in the traffic units -- those patrolling highways and investigating crashes -- dropped during the city's 2009 budget crisis and isn't back up to earlier levels, said Lt. Brent Mull, who heads the traffic unit.
Other officers in the city's precincts, whose duties include traffic enforcement, have responded to a rising number of calls for service, Lieutenant Mull said, further cutting down on the number of police eyes watching drivers on the roads.
Columbus police issued 25 percent fewer citations in 2011 than in 2009, according to annual reports.
"Time to patrol, time to enforce traffic laws -- that's the first thing that goes away," Lieutenant Mull said.
Statewide, 1.2 million traffic cases were filed in Ohio municipal and county courts last year, according to statistics compiled by the Ohio Supreme Court. The number has dropped every year since 2006, and it's down from almost 1.8 million cases in 2002.
Drunken-driving cases are down more than 20 percent over the past decade, although more were filed in 2011 than in 2010.
"Our hope is, [the message is] starting to get through," said Doug Scoles, the executive director of the Ohio chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "But we'd like to see a more-steady decline."
Franklin County Municipal Court records since 2003 mirror the statewide decline in traffic cases. Almost 134,000 cases were filed nearly a decade ago, and more than 91,000 were filed in 2011.
The numbers include all traffic cases sent to court, including people charged in fatal crashes, drunken drivers, and speeding tickets. Court officials said cases are tallied whether motorists pay fines online or challenge them in person, so the decline isn't because fewer people are contesting traffic citations.
Fewer are, though.
The court statistics show that, statewide, 3.6 percent of people took their speeding tickets or other citations to a judge. The percentage of people who request a jury trial is just 0.1 percent. Those figures are down from 4.4 percent and 0.5 percent 10 years ago.