Why is the fine for a basic traffic infraction in the state of Washington such a random-looking number?

Willy-Peter Schaub was puzzled by a sign reminding drivers that the fine for obstructing an intersection is $101 and wonders what the extra $1 is for.

The laws of the State of Washington defer the monetary value of traffic fines to the Infraction Rules for Courts of Limited Jurisdiction (more commonly known as the IRLJ), specifically section 6.2: Monetary Penalty Schedule for Traffic Infractions [pdf].

But wait, the fine listed in the IRLJ is only $42. Where did $101 come from?

In addition to the base fine in the IRLJ, RCW 3.62.090 specifies additional assessments: Section (1) specifies a 70% assessment for public safety and education, and section (2) specifies an additional public safety and education assessment equal to 50% of the earlier assessment. On top of that, RCW 46.63.110 specifies various fees and penalties: Section 7(a) specifies a $5 fee for emergency services, section 7(b) specifies a $10 fee for auto theft prevention, section 7(c) specifies a $2 fee for the traumatic brain injury account, and section 8(a) specifies a $20 penalty to be shared between the state and the local jurisdiction.

There are probably other clauses which add to the fines and penalties. I remember investigating this a few years ago and convincing myself that after taking all the fines and penalties and assessments and whatever-else-they-call-its into account, the total did come to $101. (Actually, they bring it to something close to $101, and then another rule about rounding kicks in.)

And you won't get the numbers to add up to $101 any more because there were changes to the fee schedule in July 2007. The fine for basic traffic infractions is now $124. The new calculation appears to be 42 × 2.05 + 5 + 10 + 2 + 20 = $123.10, which rounds up to $124.

Comments (39)
  1. nathan_works says:

    really just another way to tax folks, just call them fees.. Sure you can usually go to court and if you have a clean record (or mostly clean) the judge may dismiss or knock the charge down to something very piddly, but the bloody court costs will be as much as the ticket, if not more.. (But your record will stay clean..)

  2. Bill says:

    @Nathan: Or just don’t obstruct the intersection in the first place?

  3. nathan_works says:

    Bill, if law enforcement (especially traffic laws) wasn’t capricious, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

  4. Michael says:

    Rounds… up… to $124.  That’s an unusual rounding rule.

  5. DAEngh says:

    In California, the $1 (of, say, a $371 construction zone fine) is to pay for night couort.  Even though night court is only available for certain infractions, and in most counties, only once a month.  Similarly, there’s "Penalty Assessment" of $18.50 for every $10 of legistated fine and other administrative fees – pointedly not fines.

  6. GWO says:

    @Nathan Optional taxes are a good thing, no?  Would you feel better if you paid more tax, but got a rebate every year that you kept a clean driving licence?

    (Never had a driving infraction fine, never caused an accident.  Its called paying attention.  I did once get wheel clamped by a private operator though.)

  7. Pavel Lishin says:

    So what happens to the extra 90 cents?

  8. ChrisR says:

    On Saturday afternoon I was in a queue of about 30-40 cars waiting at an intersection on 65th at Roosevelt (University District, in Seattle).  It took about 15 minutes to get through the intersection, even though 65th was clear, since every time we got a green light we were blocked by cars in the intersection for nearly the entire green.  Irritating!

    This was the case where the people who were stuck in the intersection were really just there because they didn’t want to wait their turn.  One of the most irritating trips I have taken in the past couple months.

    It’s really not hard to keep an intersection clear.  If there’s no space for your car on the other side, do not enter the intersection.  If you are worried people will jump in front of you, keep in mind changing lanes in the intersection is also illegal and just accept that some people will break that law also; too bad.  It’s not your turn until there’s space for your car.

  9. Garry Trinder says:

    Reminds me of a ticket I was got in Massachuttes.  The fine was $134.50.  I accidentally wrote the check for $134.00.  They send me a bill for 50 cents.  I noticed that at every infraction level (10 MPH over limit; 20 MPh over limit etc), the fine ended with ".50". I guessing a lot of people make that mistake (and sending out the bill probably costs the state more than 50 cent)

  10. configurator says:

    @ChrisR: In some intersections you can’t cross without blocking it; everybody will pass you and block it for you if you wait your turn. Saying "Everybody else is breaking the law", as loud as you may say it at that moment will not get you through said intersection. Only breaking the law would.

    I make it a point not to drive in those intersections, and in fact, I try never to drive when there’s traffic. I don’t mind working from 15:00 to 2:00 (yes, 2AM), but I mind wasting an extra hour for my fifteen minute trip to work, just because everybody else wants to drive in the same direction.

    That said, I’ve moved and I now take the Underground to work. Much better, thank you.

  11. ChrisR says:

    @configurator: I did mention that it’s difficult because people will jump your turn and block the intersection for you, yes.  I also mentioned that I don’t think it’s an excuse.  Yelling as loud as you want "but other people will take my turn!" should not get you out of any ticket you may get.

  12. RayH says:

    @Pavel, maybe BillG wrote some software to redirect the extra 90c to his personal account….  or was that a film I saw once?

  13. tekumse says:

    I got out of such ticket when I talked to the judge.  In my case the perpetrator was a crazy pedestrian followed by a mob of pedestrians who saw an opening and took it.

  14. njkayaker says:

    Michael: "Rounds… up… to $124.  That’s an unusual rounding rule."

    Not really. (It isn’t an unusal rule regarding payments.)

  15. Marquess says:


    Have thought about telling your local police about that gold mine? One week, and their budget will be in the blacks for years to come.

  16. Michael says:

    "Remember, "you may not enter an intersection you cannot exit" is a statement about a future situation. So, really, it’s "you may not enter an intersection that will become impossible for you to exit", a requirement to predict the future."

    One of the unique characteristics of human mind is the ability to project current data into the future, and essentially predict future events.

    Look at the road ahead of the intersection.  Is traffic moving, or is it stopped?  If you crossed the intersection now, would you have a spot in your lane past the intersection, given the rate and density of cars ahead of you?

    I do this every day, and it’s really not hard.  Well, it is if you write an essay attempting to describe this subconscious process programmatically.

  17. Gabe says:

    Michael, I think the point was that even though predicting the future is not always that difficult, there are still situations (certainly less than 1%) where the future is not predictable. Those are the situations where incorrectly predicting the future should not be illegal.

    Can I tell if there’s room ahead of the truck in front of me? Can I possibly know that the jerk next to me is going to cut me off in the middle of the intersection? How can I tell that a group of pedestrians is going to cross in front of me before I clear the intersection?

    It should only be illegal to block an intersection if you could tell ahead of time that you wouldn’t be able to clear it.

  18. Michael says:

    @Gabe: the law, like most systems, will not achieve 100% perfect coverage.  That’s what the courts exist.

    If I run a red light around a cop, I’ll probably get a ticket.  It’s not a justifiable ticket if the yellow phase of the signal is unreasonably short.  That doesn’t mean the law against running red lights is badly written – it means I’ve got a judge and a city works to talk to.

  19. Michael G says:

    This explains nothing, because H2G2 aside, 42 itself is still a rather random-looking number.  It started out that way.

  20. Mike Kale says:

    Raymond, I love your blog — both for its technical content and (especially) for posts like this that give us a software developer’s take on ordinary life.  Keep up the good work!

  21. Dean Harding says:

    Wierd, I would’ve just put the odd number down to starting off a "round" amount some years ago and then adding 4% (or whatever) per year to account for inflation.

  22. No One says:

    I hate people blocking the intersection in front of me.  I’d rather wait (and annoy everyone behind me) than risk blocking it.

    But sometimes, it really isn’t possible to avoid. The last time I was trapped in the intersection, I had a car length when I started.  But then a bus cut into the space without signaling.  Sometimes, there really isn’t anything you can do.

    BTW: if your the first car at the blocked intersection, you can get a good reaction by dropping into neutral and flooring it.

  23. James Schend says:

    Nathan, you could complain about speeding tickets, or red light cameras, or the entire city of Federal Way (which seems to be nothing but a gigantic speed trap!)– but obstructing an intersection *is* one of those things that makes life miserable for everybody and should be illegal.

  24. njkayaker says:

    Gabe: "Can I tell if there’s room ahead of the truck in front of me?"

    What is or isn’t in front of the truck is irrelevent.


    A lot of people are assuming the cops giving tickets for this aren’t paying attention to other drivers (eg, the person stopping for no reason).

    The point of this law (as a few others have said) is primarily to avoid gridlock. The idea behind the fine is to encourage people to think before entering an intersection.

  25. Random832 says:

    @James Schend  “but obstructing an intersection *is* one of those things that makes life miserable for everybody and should be illegal.”

    “and should be illegal” does not follow from the rest of your statement without first making a rather questionable assignment of blame. Why not fine whoever owns the car preventing the car in the intersection from leaving instead? It’s easy enough to come up with situations where it really is that person’s fault.

    [In jurisdictions where I’ve studied the rules, the rule is that you may not enter an intersection you cannot exit. So it’s your fault for getting into a bad situation. (Besides, the person preventing you from leaving is probably stuck in traffic and cannot move. How is it his fault that he’s preventing you from leaving? He got through the intersection fine.) -Raymond]
  26. Cheong says:

    In Hong Kong, sometimes the traffic condition goes so bad that the traffic only move the distance of about 1 car between green lights. If you don’t cut into intersection when you have space (even if it isn’t legal to enter), you risk having yourself and everyone behind you stuck in there for the whole peak hour.

    I do not own car, but did have experienced waiting at certain intersection for 1.5 hours before the bus finally choose to enter the grid. If I was in hurry, I should have went off the bus and took MTR (the underground railway here) instead. For a record, the journey that usually takes 45 minutes finally took 3 hours.

  27. Random832 says:

    I had a whole long list of examples (most either being legitimately probable situations involving left turns on a light without an arrow, or situations where another driver unexplainably just suddenly stops).

    A literal interpretation of that rule requires an unrealistically long separation distance between cars (length of the car plus width of the intersection) – which at some speeds and timings would allow about one car per signal cycle to cross [who’s “making life miserable for everybody” now?] – and which would anyway cause everyone to think they can move into that space in front of you (requiring you to wait even longer to get that space back), and it makes left turns on non-arrow intersections flatly impossible without being able to predict the future.*

    Remember, “you may not enter an intersection you cannot exit” is a statement about a _future_ situation. So, _really_, it’s “you may not enter an intersection that _will become_ impossible for you to exit”, a requirement to predict the future.

    *It is legal, in most jurisdictions, to enter the intersection while still waiting for a gap in _oncoming_ traffic, provided there is space in your destination lane on the left side of the intersection. At many intersections this is in fact the recommended procedure. If that gap never arrives, then you have a narrow window between when the last oncoming car goes by [and, in practice, when the _next_ oncoming car makes it clear it’s not going to run the red] and when the traffic to your right starts moving. If the traffic to your right goes too early (they may be breaking the law in doing so; in some jurisdictions you may not enter after the light turns green until all cars from the previous directions have cleared the intersection), then you’re stuck, the traffic coming from your right is now flowing, and the traffic to your left is blocked. A legal act was turned into an illegal one through nothing you did.

    “accept that some people will break that law”, particularly when you’re in fact being told to _predict_ [with, I suppose, your psychic powers] whether or not other people will break the law – is not an acceptable position for a law to take. If the situation is caused by _someone else_ having broken the law, then they should have to pay both fines (for what they actually did, and for causing the intersection to become blocked)

    The law seems to be basically people who get stuck in traffic saying “I’m mad at this situation, and _someone_ has to pay for it – it might as well be you” – which isn’t the kind of attitude that leads to good public policy.

    As for “How is it his fault that he’s preventing you from leaving?” – well, if he illegally entered the intersection in the first place [either by being too eager when his light turned green, or by making a right-on-red without actually checking if he would be blocking someone] then the answer is obvious. There’s also the admittedly contrived (but are you seriously asking me to _trust_ other drivers not to act unreasonably?) situation of a driver stopping immediately after the intersection with nothing in front of them. Sure, it won’t always be their fault, but it won’t always be the fault of the one stuck in the intersection either – and if you have to _pick one_ to apply in _all_ cases, one’s not necessarily a better choice than the other.

    [“stopping immediately after the intersection with nothing in front of them” is obstruction. -Raymond]
  28. Some Guy says:

    It should only be illegal to block an intersection if you could tell ahead of time that you wouldn’t be able to clear it.

    If the car in front has space between the rear bumper and the edge of the intersection then you can fit there, and thus can clear the intersection.

    If there is not enough space, then you can not clear the intersection.

    This means that either you’re a retard who should be shot, and not just have your license taken off you, or you can wait until the car in front of you moves and makes space.

    When traffic is dense, then you can wait. When traffic is not dense, you don’t need to wait.

    You do not have to "predict the future" – you merely have to be smart enough to qualify as a mammal – a challenge for many drivers, I will admit.

  29. Jondr says:

    @random832 "*It is legal, in most jurisdictions, to enter the intersection while still waiting for a gap in _oncoming_ traffic, provided there is space in your destination lane on the left side of the intersection."

    <sigh>. Do not do this in Colorado. It is not legal. It is a traffic offense. If caught, you will pay a fine. I learned that the hard way. You might want to re-check your local traffic laws.

  30. David says:

    The idea of tacking on all sorts of fees and assessments really bothers me.  At some point, everyone agreed that the punishment for some traffic infraction would be $X.  And then, over time, repeatedly, some politician would say something like, "Wouldn’t it be great if we had a fund for battered spouses?" and when the time came to decide how to pay for it, the decision was to create a new fee/assessment for traffic infractions.  Because, you know, when it comes to battered spouses, every criminal is just as bad as the guy beating his wife, so let’s make them all pay.  And nobody can go on record against such an assessment, because then they’d be both pro-criminal, AND anti-battered-spouse-fund.  So the assessments get bigger and bigger and that $X fine now costs you $3X.

  31. Yuhong Bao says:

    "They send me a bill for 50 cents.  I noticed that at every infraction level (10 MPH over limit; 20 MPh over limit etc), the fine ended with ".50". I guessing a lot of people make that mistake (and sending out the bill probably costs the state more than 50 cent)"

    So would you try and pay the 50 cents?

  32. ChrisR says:

    @Random832: "The law seems to be basically people who get stuck in traffic saying "I’m mad at this situation, and _someone_ has to pay for it – it might as well be you" – which isn’t the kind of attitude that leads to good public policy."

    People causing gridlock by blocking intersections is a *major* problem, not a stupid little annoyance causing a few people to be late once in a while.

  33. Joseph Koss says:

    I’d make them try to collect the 50 cents. Maybe even blog about their attempts.

  34. nathan_works says:

    GWO, do you understand now, based on David’s comment, why I call it a fake tax ? They aren’t user fees any more. (well, that may vary by state and county, but where I live, all that money goes into a big pot. They aren’t self-funding fees. As david points out, it’s bad politics to vote against it as a legislator.)

  35. Worf says:

    @Joseph Koss: Never try to outwit a bureaucrat. They will try to collect, though what most likely happens is it dings your credit rating and you get a collection agency on your ass. Not that they want to, but they probably buy the debt from the city in bulk.

    And/or, when it’s time to renew your driver’s license, you’ll find yourself denied. Common in big cities where there may be significant parking fines uncollected.

  36. jeremy says:

    An interesting thing to note about traffic is that the various "traffic phenomena" you see, like congestion, gridlock, etc, all exhibit basically soliton or shockwave like behavior.  

    You can actually find some nice videos and animations of this if you google "traffic soliton."  For example, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Suugn-p5C1M (although the statement that "for the first time" is totally retarded, this has been known since the beginning of time.)

    Another interesting thing to note is that traffic (under normal traffic rules) is actually unstable with respect to small perturbations in vehicles’ behavior.  This is actually related to why buses end up arriving in clumps instead of at regular intervals.  It’s also why traffic problems develop where traffic flow should be uniform (e.g., freeways and highways away from on-ramps / roads, or on long arterials with few crossroads).

    This behavior is apparently so obvious to physicists that I’ve heard about a dozen of them talk about how they’d independently figured these things out one afternoon while being stuck in traffic.

    A fun exercise is to try to find a basic toy set of traffic rules that will put traffic in a stable equilibrium.  You can either do this with clever static rules, or self-adjusting rules.  (Unfortunately, you can’t apply those to real-life because politicians will never listen to a scientist who claims he can solve traffic flow problems with partial differential equations!)

  37. aaawww says:

    this is what happens when programmers examine laws:

    what if the man on my left change lane and drive in the spot ahead of me, causing me to block the intersection? I cannot predict that and I’ll be fined for that, so the law is broken!

    well, except no: law is not run on programs mercilessly on situations over and over – there are small courts, judges, and people behind it – which is not to say that some law officers are morons…

  38. violet says:

    @Jondr – My understanding of the law in Colorado is that you can enter an intersection on green to turn left, and stay there until you can safely execute the turn. You are, in fact, *required* to do so — if you begin turning and some idiot runs a red to hit you (because, say, he is driving too fast while towing a horse trailer–just to pluck a completely random example out of the air), it is your fault.

    At least, that’s the law according to the cop who gave my girlfriend the ticket and the judge who upheld it (though, of course, it was reduced to driving with a slightly sodden windshield wiper blade or somesuch).

  39. Paul says:

    UK Law, FYI:

    Box junctions. These have criss-cross yellow lines painted on the road (see ‘Road markings’). You MUST NOT enter the box until your exit road or lane is clear. However, you may enter the box and wait when you want to turn right, and are only stopped from doing so by oncoming traffic, or by other vehicles waiting to turn right. At signalled roundabouts you MUST NOT enter the box unless you can cross over it completely without stopping.

    [Law TSRGD regs 10(1) & 29(2)]

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