It’s hard to find a bright side to an international health crisis that has derailed the entire economy, but here’s one: Very few people are getting speeding or parking tickets anymore.
Police departments across Massachusetts wrote 95 percent fewer tickets for moving violations such as speeding and driving without a license in the first three weeks of April compared with the same period in 2019.
The biggest departments showed especially huge drops, according to records at the Registry of Motor Vehicles. Tickets issued by Boston police plummeted from 1,496 to 106, while the number of tickets written by State Police dropped from 22,098 to 1,427. And Cambridge police? They cited only one driver for a moving violation through April 22 compared with 441 for the same period last year.
Meanwhile, parking illegally in Boston seems less risky than it used to: The number of tickets issued for parking violations in the city fell by nearly 75 percent in the first two weeks of April.
The plummeting enforcement numbers reflect the sharp drop in drivers during the pandemic, but also what might be called a spirit of forgiveness among many police officers. For example, Boston Transportation officials say they have suspended ticketing for expired registrations, inspection stickers, and handicapped placards because the state has extended deadlines for renewal.
And, for the dwindling number of drivers venturing onto Massachusetts roads, the falloff in enforcement has been a bonanza.
“I haven’t paid a meter since this whole thing started,” said Devin Gordon of Brookline, who hasn’t gotten a parking ticket throughout the pandemic despite repeated violations. “I’m sure that includes a few minutes here and there when I technically should have. I’d be pretty surprised and irate if I got a parking ticket now. It’s not like anyone is fighting for spots.”
Police say drivers shouldn’t get too comfortable breaking the law: Officers are still on duty.
“I can tell you Boston police are out there doing their jobs,” said Boston police spokesman John Boyle. “If a motor vehicle violation is committed and they observe it, they will pull someone over. Public safety is our priority.”
And the State Police announced last week that it would be adding more road patrols after drivers complained that they were taking their lives in their hands driving the Mass. Pike.
“The way people were driving on the Masspike today, you’d have thought people were drinking @PURELL rather than using it on their hands," tweeted Paul Dobson, who is moving from South Boston to Holliston and making regular trips on the Mass. Pike.
“People are taking advantage of the extra space,” Dobson said in an interview. “It’s pretty nerve -racking.”
State Police spokesman David Procopio said the department is adding patrols “at random times and dates” to discourage speeders lured by the open roads.
“We believe — based on anecdotal evidence — that the lower traffic volume has emboldened drivers who are inclined to break the speed limit to do so, at times by significantly high speed,” said Procopio.
Traffic and parking tickets historically have been a major source of income for cities and towns — parking enforcement in Boston alone brought in $71 million last year. But the coronavirus outbreak, along with Governor Charlie Baker’s shelter-at-home advisory in mid-March, has upended business as usual for police as well, leaving the state with largely empty streets even during rush hour.
Some leaders saw the reduction in tickets as a sign of success. Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone said he was pleased that the number of tickets written by police in April dropped from 191 to 1.
“The decrease in traffic violations in Somerville is a direct result of the high level of compliance with stay-at-home measures to slow the spread of COVID-19,” said Curtatone. “I want to thank our community for that."
Officials caution that the ticket count for the month could still increase somewhat, but, through April 22, the number written statewide had fallen from 47,208 in April 2019 to 2,219.
The number of parking tickets issued in Boston for the first two weeks of April fell by three-quarters compared with the same period in 2019, from 58,885 to 15,601. City transportation officials say the deep drop reflects not only a reduction in traffic, but also the extension of state deadlines for expired registrations and inspection stickers.
In addition, they say, they’re not ticketing for street cleaning and are allowing drivers with resident stickers to park at meters.
Brian Kyes, chief of Chelsea police and president of the Massachusetts Major City Chiefs of Police, said many departments have decided to let some violations slide and pull over fewer cars to prevent the virus from spreading.
"We want to limit our interactions as much as possible with people," said Kyes.
Officers are advised to wear gloves and masks when they pull someone over and to ask drivers their name and birthdate so they can look them up on a computer in their cruiser, rather than handling licenses, registrations, and other paperwork.
His rule of thumb is "unless the operation of the motor vehicle is such that it's jeopardizing public safety, don’t stop the car.”
Even with the open roads — or maybe because of them — there have still been more than 2,600 car accidents reported statewide between March 23 and April 26. That’s dramatically fewer than the 12,000 reported during the same period last year, but the roads can still be dangerous: There have been 21 fatal car crashes since March 23 compared with 29 in the same period last year.
Of course, limited traffic and parking enforcement isn’t the same as no enforcement, and some drivers complained that they received tickets anyway, adding insult to the injury already caused by the pandemic.
“I thought parking was free, so I never paid money into the meter,” said one Boston resident who received a $40 ticket on Boylston Street in mid-April.
Another driver, Senai Sahle of Dorchester, got a $65 ticket in late March after parking on the sidewalk. He said he was trying to keep out of the way of traffic on his congested city street.
“Receiving that ticket has been extremely stressful," he said. "To give us tickets in this economic crisis is downright despicable.”
City officials said Sahle’s car was ticketed as a result of a complaint from a neighbor.
Andrea Estes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.