Musings on Traffic Laws

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My husband and I have noticed a disturbing pattern: we get traffic violation tickets within weeks whenever we move to a new place. I joked with him about the trend after receiving my third ticket since moving Inside the Beltway. But, as I considered the tickets we’ve racked up since we’ve been together, I realized that moving is a predictor of tickets about 80% of the time.

When you move to a new place, you are often more concerned with learning how to get to where you need to go than with what jurisdiction you are in, what traffic signs are posted, and where the traps are. You are probably also trying to pay more attention to potential accidents with pedestrians and other vehicles, since their behaviors are often specific to the local region. As an illustration, I’ll describe two regions below.

East Bay (San Francisco Bay Area)

In the East Bay — Berkeley, Oakland, and their suburbs — there are two particular peculiarities that I noted. 1) Almost all drivers will get into the far left lane as soon as possible after entering a freeway. 2) Pedestrians assume that cars will stop for them, so they tend to not even look to see if a car is approaching before stepping into the street. Freeways in this area are 6—10 lanes, so the first behavior requires slow traffic to cross multiple lanes in front of fast traffic. Both of these patterns of behavior clearly require drivers to adjust their priorities to avoid collisions.

Baltimore

The peculiar behaviors in Baltimore are 1) everyone one runs red lights and 2) drivers honk at each other almost instantaneously after a light turns green. Red light running in Baltimore is significantly more extreme than I have seen in other cities. No one stops for a yellow, rather, the first few cars to reach the intersection on a red will continue through. As an aside, while my husband was being pulled over in Baltimore for making a right turn on red, three cars in a row turned left on red. The defensive pedestrian or driver wisely waits after the change to a green light to make sure that all cross traffic has come to a stop. I always felt that the honking was more a friendly reminder, because no one in his right mind would go through the intersection on a green light without a serious delay. Regardless, these behaviors also require drivers to adjust their priorities to avoid collisions — they must pay attention to red-light running and not respond to honking by accelerating into an intersection.

Government safety measures

The counter-measures taken in Berkeley to address the problem of pedestrian accidents are rather amusing: fluorescent flags are attached to poles at crosswalks for pedestrians to wave as they cross the street. This back-fired since the flags were promptly stolen and had to be replaced by the city. The flags may have actually helped, but I don’t think it’s because the pedestrians are more visible. Pedestrians are usually visible — drivers just don’t expect them to walk in front of a much larger object moving at high speeds. I think the flags make the pedestrians more alert as they cross in front of deadly vehicles.

These flags are also in the affluent area of Washington, DC where I got my tickets. So far, my analysis is the same. If anything, pedestrians with flags cross the street more slowly than pedestrians without flags, so this may actually have more negative consequences.

In another town in northern California, a friend of ours sprained her ankle while crossing the street. At the time of the injury, she was part of a sting operation to ticket drivers who did not yield to pedestrians. She played the part of the pedestrian, crossing back and forth across the street all day, entrapping hapless motorists. So now I know that they are vengeful about pedestrian right-of-way in that town.

Whether intentional or not, traffic lights in Baltimore are more-or-less anti-timed. As you drive on any number of city streets, you will hit a red light about every 2 or 3 blocks. I also suspect that the red-light behavior is a reaction to this traffic engineering: if you don’t run a few reds, getting across town can take significantly longer.

My husband has hypothesized that the anti-timing is intentional, and not just to slow down traffic. He sees this as a boon in terms of gas tax revenue. Which brings me to a new device that Audi has designed to help you hit green lights. Of course, it requires that the traffic signals are outfitted with something to communicate with the cars. But, since that’s a public-private partnership that could stimulate the economy and help Main Street, that’s not where politicians will find fault. Rather, it is the very real decrease in fuel taxes that such a device will spur.

Now that I am comfortable with the driving behavior of my fellow motorists in DC, have learned the best route to take on my commute, know how to get to the grocery store, dry cleaner, gas station, etc…, I have been able to turn my focus over to knowing the various speed limits, speed camera locations, and traffic cop hangouts. I now know to expect sudden braking for no apparent reason about halfway between work and home: that’s where the speed cameras are. I am not driving safer, but, thanks to the perverse incentives, I don’t expect to get any more tickets. At least until the next time we move.

Kathryn Muratore [send her mail] is an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at American University. She holds a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cell Biology from UC Berkeley.

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