ENFORCING TRAFFIC LAWS

by John Martin
12-31-03

What would happen if there were no police to enforce our traffic laws? Would there be mayhem on the highways? Would accidents, injuries and deaths skyrocket?

That is probably the mindset of many people, especially those with statist inclinations. Who would keep the drunks and reckless drivers under control? Isn't that just as important as stopping people from looting, robbing and killing?

Of course, everyone should be responsible for his actions. If a person causes an accident, he should compensate the victims for the damages he did to them. That is the proper way for the law to be applied. And that is why people carry liability insurance -- to protect themselves just in case they are charged with accidents.

But as we all know, most traffic law enforcement is not directed at accident prevention and justice. It is cops roaming around, or sitting around, ready to pounce onto whatever technical violations they can find. The vast majority of these endanger absolutely nobody. Typical examples are not wearing seat belts, rolling stops, running quick-changing lights, and of course, exceeding a speed limit that is more often than not 10, 15, or even 20 mph below the safe speed a person can drive on a given road.

An observant person can quantify to some extent the percentage of traffic stops and citations as related to offenses that actually deserve them. All he has to do is count the number of police stops he sees in a given period of time (a month or two, perhaps) during his daily commuting. He can compare these to the number of serious violations he sees committed by other drivers in the same area and during the same period that actually deserve citations -- the reckless ones that endanger people and property, not technical infractions. Typically, one can see 20 to 50 traffic stops for every violation that is worthy of a ticket. Even though only half of these stops may represent actual citations, the percentage as related to deserving offenses is overwhelming.

The remaining stops are not exactly harmless either. In addition to diverting police attention away from stopping crime, they are frequently a harassment to motorists. It would not be so bad if the police simply informed the motorists of their infractions and let them go right away. Instead, they routinely insist on looking at licenses, insurance papers and registration. They often ask invasive none-of-your-business questions and make requests to search the vehicles. Of course the motorists can say "no," but most are intimidated into complying lest they be further detained to wait for search warrants on real or imagined suspicions that they might be hiding something. Most people don't want to risk wasting that much time.

In recent years, traffic law enforcement has become more abusive than ever. Although speed traps have been around for decades, their numbers and abuses have multiplied greatly. Many local governments have developed strategies to make enforcement an efficient cash cow rather than a safety priority. They have invested huge sums in radar, cameras and other gadgets to nab any hapless motorist who doesn't follow the letter of the law. Signals are sometimes rigged with such a short yellow, it is impossible to avoid running a red light. Fines, penalties and court costs have exploded far out of proportion to inflation and normal living costs. They have imposed minimums on how many tickets each officer must issue lest he be reprimanded or even demoted or laid off. Police are increasingly using roadblocks and checkpoints to stop traffic to scrutinize licenses and "papers," quiz motorists and passengers, and search vehicles for incriminating items and valuables to seize. More and more frivolous "offenses" have been created such as "Click It or Ticket" -- an especially nasty imposition because it is largely financed by federal matching funds.

The timing and manner of much traffic law enforcement is further proof that traffic safety is a lower priority than generating revenue. Everybody knows that late at night when traffic is sparse, the odds of having an accident, especially one involving other vehicles, is greatly diminished. Yet in many areas, the numbers of police during these times are just as great as they are during peak traffic periods -- sometimes greater. Motorists are practically alone and easy targets. They must be especially vigilent -- not for driving safely -- but to avoid any act a policeman might percieve as a justification for a traffic stop and a possible citation. The danger is especially great during holiday weekends when nearly every law enforcement officer is on the prowl instead of where he belongs either protecting us from criminals or spending the holiday at home with his family.

Traffic courts have become kangaroo courts. The defendants tell their stories to judges who routinely presume them guilty and impose heavy fines and court costs. Because of this lack of justice, the great majority of victims simply mail in their tickets along with checks to pay the fines, especially if they are from out of state where going to court would be very time-consuming and costly.

Politicians love this kind of law enforcement. It not only provides extra revenue; it gives the police something "legitimate" to do with time they might otherwise be "wasting." A policeman's duty 95% of the time is standing by watching out for crimes and being available when needed on an urgent call. And yes, there is nothing wrong with spending some of it in coffee and doughnut shops.

In addition, many policemen have accepted traffic duty as safer than going after criminals who would be more likely to attempt to hurt or kill any authorities who got in their way.

How is traffic law enforcement different? Unlike criminal activities, which are pre-meditated wrongs against other people, traffic violations are caused by negligence and carelessness, not by willful attempts to hurt other people. Therefore, imposing criminal penalties for them is the wrong way to keep our highways safe.

What should we do about traffic laws? For the most part, they are reasonable and fair. Everybody who uses the roads should respect the rights of other motorists. And nobody should deliberately intimidate or endanger others.

But where does law enforcement come in? And do we really need it? What would people do if there were no cops around? All one has to do is look at some of the numerous places where that is true. There are many rural roads that have little or no traffic police. Even some Interstates are not patrolled between midnight and 6 am. Are the accident rates any higher there? Police departments do not like to admit it, but the accident and death rates are rarely any higher than other roads that are regularly patrolled and strictly enforced.

Why is this so? The truth is that traffic laws tend to be self-enforcing. There might be a greater number of trivial but perfectly safe infractions. But if a person is reckless in his driving habits, he is more prone to have an accident. He knows he would suffer damage to his car and risk injury or death. His insurance premium would also go up. For 99.999% of the people who drive, these alone are compelling reasons to drive safely and carefully.

In addition, there is another factor that would make driving safer. If there were no traffic police to harass them, motorists would have a greater peace of mind and be able to devote their attention to driving safely instead of diverting some of it to watch out for pirates with blue lights.

And finally, we would have much better police protection. If we eliminated the diversions of traffic stops and roadblocks along with victimless "crime" enforcement like drug busts, prostitution and gambling stings, asset forfeitures, and other counterproductive and oppressive activities, police would not be able to neglect their duty just to have something to do. They would have the choice of fighting real crime or doing nothing. Numerous patrolmen could function as detectives and other positions to solve crimes. They would be able to devote all of their time to protect people and their property from thieves, burglars, muggers, robbers, vandals, arsonists, extortionists, murderers, and terrorists. Police would once again become the people's friends instead of their adversaries. They would be appreciated as genuine public servants, and in turn, people would be more co-operative in helping them out during emergencies. When this happens, the police will be more than deserving of some extra days off and some extra time in the coffee shops.


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