Murder on the Roads Intersections

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Introduction

In casual conversation regarding the viability of statelessness
and the abolition of taxation, I often get responses like this:

“What about roads? You use roads, don’t you? The state provides
us with the streets and highways we drive on. Without taxation,
how would they be funded and built?”

 I always respond to that with another question:

“How well does the state, as a monopoly, construct and maintain
roads?”

Results

Every year, more than 42,000 people are killed in car accidents
and the number keeps rising. What does the state do to try to reduce
traffic fatalities? The answer: nothing.

Governments do supposedly “address” the problem, but unfortunately,
as coercive monopolies, they face no risk of losing their “customers,"
who are forced to pay for the product whether they want to or not.
Predictably, then, their usual approach is to pile on ever more
exploitative, complicated, and easy-to-break rules and regulations.

In this absence of competition, where is the incentive to develop
innovative solutions to traffic problems? Where is the incentive
to improve quality and safety?

Making matters worse, the state does have incentive to generate
ever more “revenue” — i.e., to take in money in any way that it
can. The sad result is that when state bureaucrats are choosing
a “solution," effectiveness in addressing the problem takes
a back seat to potential revenue.

Part I of this essay will explore issues with intersections and
state “solutions” to managing them. We will explore facts that demonstrate
that the state’s inherent disincentive for solving problems results
in fatalities, injuries, and traffic congestion, while the incentives
that do pertain result in brutal, unethical exploitation and mass
negligent homicide. We will also consider information about
available alternatives and examine the possible reasons why these
far safer and less exploitive solutions are not widely used today.

Actions Speak Louder

As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words. The actions
of state bureaucrats show that they have little concern for health
and safety and, at the expense of tens of thousands of lives every
year (not to mention injuries and property damage), plenty of concern
for how much money they can bilk from you at the point of a gun.

According to an August
2000 article
in the Insurance Journal:

Each year in the United States more than 800 people die and
an estimated 200,000-plus are injured in crashes that involve
running a red light.

A growing body of evidence suggests that traffic lights create
more problems than they solve.

For one thing, they are difficult to manage — take a look at this
traffic-signal information page
on the Washington State Department
of Transportation website:

To achieve optimum efficiency, traffic signals must be monitored
and adjusted to serve changing traffic patterns. Traffic engineers
collect detailed information about traffic patterns, volumes and
speeds. Once this data is analyzed, new timing plans are developed
and field adjustments are implemented as required.

The department also admits that traffic signals cause the number
of rear-end collisions to increase:

Rear-end collisions usually increase when a signal is installed.
Normally, traffic engineers are willing to trade off an increase
in rear-end collisions for a decrease in the more severe angle-type
accidents. However, when there is no angle-type accident problem
at an intersection, a traffic signal may actually raise the number
of accident in a given area.

What about cost to the taxpayer?

It costs the taxpayer $100,000 to $150,000 to purchase and install
a traffic signal. Electric bills and routine maintenance amount
to about $3,000 a year. Drivers also have increased costs for
fuel, time delay, and accidents. This adds to the reasons for
installing signals only where clearly justified.

Blame the Consumer

All too often, state bureaucrats’ so-called “solution” to a problem
is to pass laws, then collect fines from those who break them. The
state rakes in billions every year in fines. Who’s paying? We are.
You, me, and everyone who has ever received a traffic ticket, been
in a car accident, or lost a loved one in a car accident. This “blame-the-consumer”
mentality can only come from a monopoly. In a competitive market,
such attitudes are weeded out.

This
July 2001 Fox News article
concerns Ann Sweet, whose daughter
was killed when a semitrailer ran a red light. Now a spokesperson
for the National
Campaign to Stop Red Light Running
, Sweet “avidly” supports
the use of cameras to nab people who run red lights.

Sweet’s grief and anger are, obviously, understandable, and her
energy and activism are laudable. What she doesn’t understand is
that she, and groups like the National Campaign to Stop Red Light
Running, are being taken advantage of by state bureaucrats. In campaigning
for traffic-light cameras, she is asking the same coercive monopoly
responsible for road safety, and hence her daughter’s death, to
exploit human error for its own financial gain, rather than consider
alternatives to the traffic-light-controlled intersection.

The questions she probably hasn’t thought to ask are, “Would the
accident that killed my daughter have happened at all if those roads
and that intersection had been constructed differently? Could there
be a better way?”

To anyone who’s read George Orwell’s 1984, traffic-light
cameras serve as an unnerving reminder of the direction in which
our government is headed.

Lights, Cameras…

So do traffic-light cameras curb accident rates? Houston, TX’s
first such cameras went live on September 1st, 2006. One week later,
the Lone
Star Times quoted
the Houston Chronicle:

The [Houston police] department projects the [eventual total
of fifty] cameras will record about 360,000 violations annually
or $27 million potential revenue. But the city expects only about
a quarter of the violators to pay the fine, which would bring
in $6.7 million. Tuton said that estimate is low, and most cities
using ATS technology see a payment rate of 75 percent to 90 percent.

As the Times sarcastically asks, “But remember, it's all about
‘safety,’ right?” The article goes on to cite a study by the Federal
Highway Administration in which statistics were collected from seven
jurisdictions using traffic-light cameras. These jurisdictions did
experience an average 23.2% reduction in right-angle crashes; however,
they also experienced an average 17.4% increase in rear-end collisions.
Three of the jurisdictions actually experienced a net increase
in number of crashes.

In October 2005, the Washington
Post reported on the District of Columbia’s traffic-light cameras
.
The Post’s analysis showed an overall increase in the number
of collisions at intersections with these cameras, an increase equal
to or greater than collision increases at intersections without
traffic-light cameras.

The analysis shows that the number of crashes at locations with
cameras more than doubled, from 365 collisions in 1998 to 755
last year. Injury and fatal crashes climbed 81 percent, from 144
such wrecks to 262. Broadside crashes, also known as right-angle
or T-bone collisions, rose 30 percent, from 81 to 106 during that
time frame.

Considering that the cameras have “generated more than 500,000
violations and $32 million in fines over the past six years,"
it's not surprising that this situation has been allowed to continue.
The article quotes Lon Anderson of AAA: “They are making a heck
of a lot of money, and they are picking the motorists’ pockets on
the pretense of safety.” Looking at the statistics, it’s hard to
disagree.

Texas Two-Step

In 2003, the Texas legislature passed a bill allowing the use
of traffic-light cameras, despite the fact that a majority of
legislators had voted against allowing them. How did this
happen?

According to this
source
:

The Legislature has for the past several sessions turned down
requests to allow cities to use cameras to catch violators. In
2003, the House voted 103-34 not to allow cities to use cameras
to issue criminal citations to red-light violators.

To get around state restrictions, state Rep. Linda Harper-Brown,
R-Irving, inserted an amendment in the 2003 transportation bill
giving cities the right to regulate transportation matters civilly
or criminally.

A very large majority of elected legislators were against the
use of traffic-light cameras. Do legislators ever actually read
the list of whims they pass? This kind of lawmaking supports Stefan
Molyneux’s
assertion that “democracy is just a suggestion box
for slaves.”

Can Laws Change Physics?

By their very nature, traffic lights do not and cannot constitute
a physical barrier to speed. This results in the following two problems:

  • The physical capabilities of automobiles make it easy for a
    driver to run a red light due to inattentiveness, excessive speed,
    or unexpected adverse road conditions (e.g., slickness).
  • Psychologically speaking, it is often in an individual’s self-interest
    to deliberately speed through yellow or even red lights.

If Joe Leadfoot is running late for work, or just spaced out, can
a traffic light force him to stop or slow down?

I’ll Be the Roundabout

So are there alternatives to traffic lights? The answer, according
to the Insurance
Journal
and Dutch
traffic engineer Hans Monderman
, is the roundabout: an
intersection with a raised island at the center. Traffic is directed
counterclockwise around the island; a car leaves the circle in the
driver’s desired direction. The modern roundabout may also feature
a triangular island in each approach to the intersection, to help
force cars to slow down as they enter the circle.

The Insurance Journal reports the following:

Researchers at Ryerson Polytechnic University, the Insurance
Institute for Highway Safety and the University of Maine studied
crashes and injuries at 24 intersections before and after construction
of roundabouts. The study found a 39 percent overall decrease
in crashes and a 76 percent decrease in injury-producing crashes.
Collisions causing fatal or incapacitating injuries fell as much
as 90 percent at some intersections.

Wired magazine quotes
Monderman
regarding a roundabout that he designed:

“I love it! Pedestrians and cyclists used to avoid this place,
but now, as you see, the cars look out for the cyclists, the cyclists
look out for the pedestrians, and everyone looks out for each
other. You can’t expect traffic signs and street markings to encourage
that sort of behavior. You have to build it into the design of
the road.”

The roundabout concept is more than a century old, yet in the United
States, roundabouts’ use remains extremely limited. Why? According
to the Insurance Journal:

Roundabouts have not been popular in U.S. engineering because
slowing down is a seeming inconvenience to drivers, according
to IIHS. And American universities and institutions that influence
road planning and engineering have reinforced the historical practice
of building high-speed intersections.

However:

The safety benefits [of roundabouts] do not hamper traffic flow.
In fact, the study found that where roundabouts replace intersections
with stop signs or traffic signals, delays in traffic can be reduced
by as much as 75 percent.

Freedom to Choose

Imagine how much safer driving would be if traffic problems were
truly addressed. Imagine a road system in which traffic paths do
not physically intersect due to better design and the exchange of
traffic lights for roundabouts. Imagine how much safer driving would
be if the basis of traffic control were the roads themselves, not
signs and lights that drivers can violate.

Almost anything government does in the name of safety means less
freedom for citizens. And when it comes to roads, any genuine concern
about safety is trumped by inefficiency and opportunities to take
bribes and extort money from citizens. Actions speak louder than
words. Traffic problems could be addressed in ways that would save
lives, time, and money. Unfortunately, governments have little incentive
to do so.

If you get bad food or service at a restaurant, are you forced
to go back there again? Of course not! And naturally, you would
choose not to. A restaurant must maintain standards in order to
remain in business. 

Similarly, if we were spared the state’s draconian taxation and
allowed to choose among competitors to build our roads — roads that
were cheaper, safer, and more efficient than what government
provides — wouldn’t you jump at the chance?

The bottom line is that the state is a monopoly. Like all monopolies,
it is exploitative. Furthermore, it is overtly coercive. As such,
it has no competition, and little incentive to provide a quality
product for the “consumer."

Because there is no accountability on the part of the manufacturer,
it has become standard practice to blame the “consumer” for flaws
in the product. Disagree? Try suing the state for defective road
design and see how far you get.

The
need for roads is one of the most-frequently-cited arguments for
the necessity of government and taxation. But as one considers all
of the problems and exploitation inherent in state-constructed and
state-managed roads, the argument rapidly loses force. To say that
by paying taxes I am paying for roads would be like an armed robber
stealing $500 dollars from me at gunpoint, leaving a beat-up old
car in my front yard, and claiming to have sold me the car.

To be continued: Stay tuned for Murder
on the Roads: Part II — Streets & Freeways
.

November
20, 2006

Nathan
McKaskle [send him mail]
lives in Houston, TX. When he is not studying libertarian philosophy
and working on the start of his own on-site computer support company,
he is working for Dominion Energy E&P as a Citrix Server Administrator.
Visit his personal blog.

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