By John Bowman, NMA Communications Director
As I reflect on this year’s Fourth of July holiday, I’m reminded of the injustices our nation’s founders fought so hard against: oppressive taxation, government intrusion and harassment, a corrupt judiciary.
I find it therefore troubling that as many of us hit the road for the long holiday weekend, we still find ourselves vulnerable to these abuses thanks to overzealous traffic enforcement operations targeted at holiday drivers.
According to AAA, some 34 million Americans will drive 50 miles or more over this long Independence Day weekend. In response to this onslaught, thousands of local and state police forces have swarmed the highways with stepped-up speeding patrols, distracted driving crackdowns, and the ubiquitous “Click or Ticket” and “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over” campaigns.
Public officials, police and the so-called highway safety organizations tell us the sole objective of these “ticket blitzes” is to make people safer on the roads. And while there may be a kernel of truth to this, it certainly is not the sole reason, nor even the primary reason.
Let’s look at speed traps. You’ll see plenty of them this weekend and throughout the summer driving season. Speed traps may get drivers to slow down temporarily, but they have no lasting effect on driver behavior or on highway safety. They do, however, generate millions in revenue for cash-strapped municipalities at the expense of responsible drivers. Sounds like an unfair tax to me.
Speaking of money, in 2011 police agencies across the country collectively received $771 million in NHTSA grant money to conduct these “selective enforcement” operations, much of it going to pay overtime to the officers on duty. But that largesse comes with strings attached. Departments getting such grants must meet specific enforcement milestones in order to continue receiving federal money. That directly translates to ticket quotas and the arbitrary enforcement practices they engender.
Thousands of police departments are also marking our nation’s founding by conducting what are euphemistically called checkpoints, otherwise known as roadblocks. Ostensibly used to check for seatbelt and DUI violations among other things, roadblocks are established to circumvent the need for probable cause to stop, interrogate, and search the occupants of a motor vehicle. Under the roadblock rubric everyone is a suspect. Again, roadblocks have no positive impact on highway safety, but they are an effective way to harass and intimidate a peaceful citizenry.
If you are unfortunate enough to be ensnared by one of these celebratory ticket fests and you wish to fight your ticket, will you get a fair hearing? If you’ve ever appeared in traffic court, you already know the answer, but consider this: the traffic justice bureaucracy in the United States is funded through the very fees it collects from the motorists over which it presides. Coupling this huge conflict of interest with the growing trend to deny motorists their constitutional rights to due process makes it tough for an individual driver to get a fair shake. All the more reason to force change by fighting every ticket.
NMA members understand that overbearing traffic enforcement doesn’t just occur around holiday time. Countless small injustices take place every day on our highways and in our courts; the cumulative impact is a cowed and financially exploited citizenry.
Such shows of force are misguided and ineffective from a safety standpoint. Instead, let’s focus on solutions that do work: proper intersection engineering, setting speed limits to their appropriate 85th percentile level, and more robust intervention for multiple DUI offenders. Now those are things worth fighting for.