California Towns Offer Incentive for Attitude Adjustment

California may be the only place in America where people actually want to get pulled over by a traffic cop.

In fact, if you get a ticket in the Northern California cities of Berkeley or Palo Alto, you may find that, instead of having to shell out cash, you've actually won coffee, a sandwich or even dinner at a local restaurant.

"Hey, we want to give these tickets to people who are keeping the streets safer," Palo Alto commute coordinator Amanda Jones said. "One motorist I gave one to had pulled up to the intersection and was going to make a right, but then backed up a little to let the pedestrians cross. If you can make all the people in one city a little more courteous, that would make a difference."

Starting this month, Palo Alto traffic cops, parking enforcement officers and beat cops began carrying "Citizens Rewards" tickets alongside their summonses, and handing them out to deserving motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians who act more courteously than your average 21st-century city dweller. Only the second rewards program of its kind in the U.S., it was modeled on a similar system across the San Francisco Bay, in Berkeley, where good motorists began getting coupons for a coffee or soda at a local sandwich shop last summer.

"People don't ever get a thank you for being a good driver," Berkeley Police Department spokesman Capt. Bobby Miller said. "We don't recognize people enough for doing the right thing. This is something we thought to do to recognize those people that do obey the law and do something good, like folks being polite enough to stop for pedestrians."

Although the idea of "good" traffic tickets may seem lighthearted, the issue it addresses is a serious problem. In Palo Alto, home to Stanford University and many major high-tech firms, the population swells to double its official size of about 65,000 during weekdays. And because it's a peninsula, many of those people are forced to commute back through the city to get home.

Traffic that dense means a larger-than-average number of accidents for a city its size. From 1999 to 2000 alone, Jones said, the number of fatal or serious accidents between automobiles and bicycles, for example, jumped from nine to 14. And nearly every fatal accident, Jones said, has its roots in a seemingly minor combination of misjudgments, such as a motorcycle running a stop sign or an SUV not signaling a right turn.

"People aren't doing enough good things," Jones said. "We're all too busy with what we're doing that we see the streets as a means to an end. If there's a fender bender, people don't stay around to act as witnesses. Cars don't yield the right of way to pedestrians. Pedestrians are walking out in the road, talking on their phones, jaywalking. Bicyclists are on the sidewalk."

In Berkeley, which has similar traffic problems, police officers in the traffic division brainstormed about the city's problem intersections and found that the more they policed those areas, the lower the accident rate became. But simply handing out traffic tickets didn't seem enough. So some officers got together and donated their own money to purchase coupons to hand out as prizes.

"It went over very positively in our city," Miller said. "Of course, even I – and I've been a uniformed officer for 35 years – I would get a little concerned when you get stopped by a police officer, but the idea is not to punish anybody."

Last year, the Palo Alto traffic division and police department decided to do the Berkeley initiative one better. Along with a $79,000 state grant, the traffic safety campaign was pitched to local merchants, who donated muffins, coffee and meals as rewards. The tickets were printed to look like regular tickets ("We kind of wanted them to go, 'Uh oh, what's this?'" Jones chuckled), and 15 parking, traffic and law-enforcement officers volunteered to hand them out. Since the program was initiated this month, the officers have handed out nearly all of the 1,700 certificates, Jones said.

And though it's too early to tell whether the rewards have made Palo Alto a safer place to drive, bike or walk, Jones is convinced it's already had an impact on the city's attitude.

"I've had people call me and say, 'I did everything right all day long and nobody gave me anything,'" Jones said. "I tell them, then it's a total success. You changed your behavior because you read about this program in the paper."