Cops As Robbers

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Recently by Eric Peters: We're Watching You… But Don't You Dare Watch Us      

Many of us have come to view traffic cops as little better than armed tax collectors deployed to fleece motorists for the benefit of state/local government.

Fixing the system – and restoring a mutually respectful relationship between the average citizen and police will require a change in attitudes and a shift in enforcement that focuses on identifying bad/dangerous drivers and getting them off the road – and leaving everyone else alone.

Some steps in the right direction would include:

Take the profit motive out of traffic enforcement

All funds raised via traffic fines should go to some third party purpose such as a charity – and not to fund the operations of state/local government or (much worse) the cops themselves. This would remove the financial incentive to use police as tax collectors. And it would eliminate one of the main reasons for public cynicism and contempt for traffic enforcement.

Set reasonable traffic laws

No more arbitrary or artificially low speed limits. Speed limits should be set by highway safety engineers, not government bureaucrats, and in accordance with the 85th percentile rule. That means doing a traffic survey – noting what the natural flow of traffic is on any given stretch of road – and setting the limit about 10-15 MPH higher than the average. Right now, most roads have limits that comport with the “slow average” speed of traffic – in effect, turning almost every driver on the road into a lawbreaking “speeder” subject to a ticket. It’s an outrage and worse, a ridiculous outrage. Excepting Prohibition back in the 1920s, few laws have ever been so casually, so routinely, ignored by a majority of citizens – who are otherwise law-abiding and reasonable people. Either they somehow morph into unreasonable people when they get behind the wheel, or the laws about speeding are themselves unreasonable – and absurd.

Speed limits should be just that – maximum safe limits. Not routine/average traveling speeds. If speed limits were set appropriately, most drivers would not be “speeding.” Which is probably why current speed limits are set they way they are. It maximizes the pool of potential victims.

Shift the emphasis from enforcement of “technical fouls” to going after actually dangerous driving

For example, instead of harassing people for driving faster than a posted limit, how about targeting objectively dangerous drivers such as tailgaters, who currently face almost no risk of being ticketed? Or people who hog the passing lane on the highway, refusing to yield to faster-moving traffic? And the obviously past-it elderly driver who wanders across the double yellow or drives 20 MPH below the flow of traffic?

These are just few examples of objectively dangerous driving that gets little, if any, attention from cops. Apparently is is easier – and more profitable – to man a radar gun on some broad avenue where almost every single car is “speeding” because the limit is set so absurdly low.

It’d be more effective to have cops patrol the roads looking for actual bad driving – if traffic safety rather than revenue enhancement – were the real goal.

No more “points” for “violations” that have nothing to do with your driving

It used to be that you only got hit with DMV “points” – the system of demerits used by the insurance industry to jack up your premiums – if you were convicted of something that at least in theory implied your driving could stand improvement. But nowadays, you can get hit with DMV points for driving in the carpool lanes solo – or failing to “buckle up.” Such things may be illegal but do they have anything to do with your competence behind the wheel?

Demerits – and the insurance surcharges that accompany them – ought to be levied only when the driver has been convicted of some offense that objectively correlates with unsafe driving practices. Examples include driving drunk, or being the cause of an accident as a result of inattentiveness or excessive speed for the situation. Otherwise, enough with the “points.” Fining people over trumped-up technical fouls is bad enough. Having to cough up your money ought to be the end of it. People shouldn’t be tagged with points that follow them around like a Scarlet Letter for years – and be made to pay for years, too.

Base traffic enforcement on the concept of “at fault”

Everyone has their own idea of what constitutes safe vs. dangerous driving but there is one objective standard we should all be able to agree on: If a driver never causes an accident then by definition he is a safe driver. Contrariwise, a driver who causes an accident is by definition not a safe driver.

Chuck all this stuff about “speeding” and everything else, too. If a driver never leaves the road, never hits anything or hurts anyone else then he ought to be left alone – even if he’s driving faster than you like. The fact may be he’s a much higher-skilled driver than you are – and a speed that is not comfortable for you is easy meat for him. Under our current system we assume a dumbed-down average and base enforcement on that very low standard. A better way would be to leave people alone until their driving actually causes a problem. Some – the Clovers out there – will say this is too dangerous, that it’s better to try to prevent the possibility of injury and damage by assuming what amounts to a very low (and pre-emptive) standard. But this just leades to more dumbing-down and more cynicism and more corruption of enforcement. Most people effectively self-police in other areas of their lives and most people also drive reasonably and within their limits and comfort zone. Those who don’t – and cause problems for others – could and should be dealt with harshly. And fairly – because they’d actually be guilty of having done something (other than violate some arbitrary, least-common-denominator-based edict).

Meanwhile, the rest of us could go about our business in peace, without having to live in constant fear of The Law.

Wouldn’t it be nice?

Reprinted with permission from EricPetersAutos.com.

Eric Peters [send him mail] is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities and Road Hogs (2011). Visit his website.

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