NMA E-Newsletter #169:The Latest Generation of Traffic Busy Bodies

The police have a long history of enlisting citizens to assist with routine law enforcement tasks. Everyone is familiar with police-sponsored neighborhood watch programs, and many communities train volunteers to monitor traffic (complete with radar guns), record license plate numbers and report infractions to local police. But we’ve recently run across several examples of citizen-led traffic control that go a little too far.

The first involves the proliferation of community-based “pace car programs.” No, it’s not a NASCAR marketing promotion. Cities from California to North Carolina encourage citizens to sign up for pace car programs in which drivers agree to strictly adhere to the speed limit in residential areas, thereby slowing down traffic and “setting a good example” for other drivers.

The more drivers who sign up, the safer the roads become, or so the theory goes. A typical example is from Davis, California.  Volunteers sign a pledge to drive safely and obey all traffic laws. In return they receive a car decal and the privilege of holding up traffic and generally making a nuisance of themselves on the roads. And it’s not just small towns; large metro areas like Washington D.C. and New Haven, Connecticut, have gotten into the act.

Pledges are also the safety tool of choice in the United Kingdom. Authorities in Edinburgh, Scotland, have rolled out a novel pilot program to get drivers to slow down. Realizing the pester power kids have over their parents, authorities are enlisting school children to badger their parents to sign a pledge to adhere to the new 20 mph speed limit. Students will compete to see who can collect the most signed pledge cards over the next few months.

Inexplicably titled “Just Give Me a Minute,” the campaign may expand to other parts of the city in coming months. Safety officials are promoting the program as a cheaper alternative to traffic calming measures, which would cost approximately six times as much. They also tout the children as “champions” who will “send out a powerful message to drivers and appeal to their sense of responsibility for their community.”

A related example also comes from the United Kingdom. Always looking for new and fun ways to target motorists, the local police in Yorkshire, England, also turned to the most innocent to do their dirty work. Students at the Anlaby Primary School recently set up a speed trap outside their school and ran laser on passing cars. With the supervision of local police, students, dubbed Junior Road Safety Officers, issued drivers tickets they made themselves.

Key to the operation was the fact that students confronted and chastised motorists for their actions. According to one enthusiastic Junior Road Safety Officer, motorists were “all really sorry and they’re giving good apologies.”

Kids have always nagged their parents to change their behavior—whether it’s to stop smoking, exercise more or to just leave them alone. But the notion of institutions (police and schools) recruiting children to admonish their parents and other adults for their driving habits strikes us as Orwellian. Who needs surveillance cameras when little Fiona is in the back seat observing everything you do behind the wheel?  Authorities imposing their will in this way cannot be in the best interests of parents or children (or drivers for that matter), even if it is done under the guise of public safety. ♦

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