TAMPA — Here's one bright spot to the economic downturn: Hillsborough County's bad drivers seem to be staying home more often.
An annual report by the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles shows that 2010 marked the lowest point in four years for traffic tickets handed out by police, state troopers and sheriff's deputies.
Citations fell throughout the Tampa Bay area, but most dramatically in Hillsborough.
The biggest drop occurred in noncriminal moving violations, a category that includes speeding, careless driving and running red lights. Hillsborough reported 43 percent fewer of those citations in 2010 than 2007. Arrests for driving under the influence fell 18 percent.
"There's been a little bit of a drop in activity, but it's been slow for all lawyers," said traffic lawyer Stephen Higgins of Finebloom & Haenel P.A. in Tampa.
Reasons for Hillsborough's falloff are many and varied, but the economic downturn seems to get most of the credit. As the economy sputtered, motorists curbed their driving, police and transportation officials say.
A survey by the Florida Department of Transportation showed bay area congestion levels dropped 5 percent, on average, at 19 of 21 locations surveyed between 2007 and 2010.
"We feel that it's due to the economy and people driving less, but it will go back up," spokeswoman Marian Scorza said. "In other years where there was a recession, we saw a slight downturn as well."
A Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles report notes "economic conditions" and "fewer vehicles on the road," among other factors, contributed to fewer reported crashes from 2007 to 2010. Specifically, accidents in Hillsborough fell 23 percent and DUI-related crashes dropped 29 percent.
Sgt. Steve Gaskins, a Florida Highway Patrol spokesman in the Tampa Bay area, said the same factors causing the lower crash numbers also trace back to why authorities handed out fewer tickets.
"The economy, higher gas prices. People aren't doing the same amount of driving as they used to," he said.
But authorities are doing about the same level of driving. Both the Tampa Police Department and the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office said they dispatched about the same number of traffic and DUI patrols in 2010 as 2009.
In explaining declining tickets, they point to driver education, increased fines and changes in policing strategy.
Authorities have discretion to ticket motorists or let them off with warnings. Drivers facing multiple tickets might catch a break on minor infractions, but get ticketed for serious violations like speeding and running red lights.
Some officers might be cutting drivers some slack, resulting in fewer total violations.
"The idea is to change driver behavior, not kick someone when they're down," Tampa police Officer Irene Thomas said. "I don't know if officers are any softer on drivers, you'd have to ask them, but I know I try to be fair."
Sheriff's Cpl. Ed Raburn, a traffic enforcement supervisor in east and northeast Hillsborough, said deputies shifted enforcement strategy a few years ago, which may also have helped.
Deputies on traffic details changed from patrolling randomly to focusing on traffic trouble spots.
"Instead of the shotgun approach, we concentrate more on areas of convergence, where there are more violators and typically where you see more crashes," Raburn said. "In the long run, people are less likely to violate."
Cpl. Brendan Fitzgerald of the sheriff's DUI enforcement unit said he'd like to believe the department's education programs made a difference. Deputies from the unit visit high schools weekly to talk about driver safety.
While those efforts likely helped, he acknowledges that steep fines and the sour economy may also have played a role. The cost of tickets has gone up in recent years: Drivers can be fined $243 for going 15 to 19 mph over the speed limit and $269 for 20 mph over the limit.
"I would love to believe people are being more careful on the roadways," he said.
Hillsborough's dropoff is bigger than the overall decline seen statewide and larger than that in Pinellas County, where noncriminal moving violations have fallen 31 percent and DUI arrests 17 percent since 2007.
Hillsborough also eclipsed Pasco and Hernando counties. Tickets there fell 35 percent and 34 percent, respectively, over the past four years.
In Tampa, DUI arrests dropped 16 percent compared with 2009 and noncriminal moving violations fell 17 percent, according to the report. DUI arrests are down 24 percent since 2007.