By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Just because it’s “the law” doesn’t mean it’s right — or even sensible — when it comes to traffic law, anyhow.
While we may have no choice but to obey — or risk a ticket — that doesn’t make bad traffic laws any more worthy of our respect than the Prohibition ban on alcohol.
Here are a few current laws that ought to be on the other end of a piece of payin’ paper for a change:
1) No Right On Red
This is a form of idiot-proofing designed to protect over-cautious, under-skilled drivers with poor vision and a weak sense of spatial relationships — the kind who need both lanes to be totally clear for at least a football field’s length before they feel confident enough to make the turn. Since they can’t safely judge the speed and distance of oncoming traffic, we get to wait at the light like morons, too — even if there isn’t another car in sight.
Everyone else gets to stack up behind the piece of arteriosclerotic traffic plaque clogging up the road, awaiting the fleeting green light that’s also timed to coincide with pedestrian right-of-way on the opposing cross street – thus assuring only a handful of cars get through before it goes red again.
Instead of dumbing-down the roads to accommodate dumbed-down, least-common-denominator drivers, why not encourage (even demand) better driving? Those lacking the skills to perform basic maneuvers such as safely pulling into an intersection without the aid of a green light ought to be taking the bus.
2) Midnight Red
It’s 2 o’clock in the morning and you come to a red light that stays red for an eternity. You sit and sit and sit — engine idling, gas and time wasting — even though there isn’t another car around for miles. Sometimes, the light even cycles without giving you the green. (A common problem for motorcycle riders.) Of course, if you become exasperated and run the light — even after stopping completely to make sure it’s safe and the way is absolutely clear — it’s almost guaranteed there will be a cop lurking nearby, burning the midnight oil just for you.
In Europe, where sensible traffic laws are more the rule than here, many signaled intersections switch over to flashing yellow — “proceed with caution” — after a certain hour, when traffic has died down to a trickle. It is assumed that drivers are competent enough to make a judgment call on their own — and it seems to work perfectly well. It’s a custom we should definitely import.
3) No Left At Light
Cousin to the no-right-on-red rule, this is the one where you find yourself at an intersection wanting to make a left turn across an opposing lane of traffic onto a sidestreet. But instead of a “yield to oncoming traffic” green light – sensible policy – you’re stuck with a red light made just for you – on the assumption you’ve got inch-thick cataracts and the ability to judge the speed and distance of oncoming traffic of Mr. Magoo. You’re supposed to wait patiently for the green arrow — even when there’s no oncoming traffic at all and you could literally get out and push the car safely across the intersection. Like no right on red, it’s a well-intended law designed to protect the worst drivers out there from their own marginal skills and poor judgment — at the expense of everyone else.
4) Under-posted Speed Limits
Speed limits are not supposed to be random numbers picked at whim by a government bureaucrat — or revenue-minded police chief. They’re supposed to be done according to traffic surveys that indicate an appropriate speed that balances safety with the goal of smoothly flowing traffic traveling at a reasonable pace for a given stretch of road. (The formal traffic safety engineering term for this is the “85th percentile speed.”) Yet most posted speed limits are set well below the 85th percentile speed — typically at least 5-10 mph below it.
This turns almost every driver on the road into a “speeder” — in the legalistic/technical sense of driving faster than the number on the sign. It usually has nothing to do with safe driving, however. Things are set up this way to give police an easy reason to pull over just about anyone at just about any time — and to generate lots of tax revenue by proxy.
We’ve all encountered what amount to obvious speed traps — the classic example being a broad, two-laned divided road posted at a ridiculous 30 or 35-mph instead of the 45-50 mph everyone’s driving. Since most of us routinely drive faster than posted maximums, we’re all either reckless fools — or the speed limits have been set absurdly low for the road. Common sense says it’s the latter; any law that is flouted by almost everyone is probably a bad law — like Prohibition.
Roads with under-posted speed limits are designed to be “revenue enhancers” for the local constabulary. But this sort of thing only creates antagonisms between the otherwise law-abiding public and the police — whose motto should be “To Serve and Protect,” not “To Harrass and Collect.” Genuinely dangerous drivers should be aggressively targeted; but using the law to extract the “motorists’ tax” from unwary drivers over trumped-up BS “speeding” charges is an altogether different matter.
5) Primary Enforcement Seat Belt Laws
This is the name given to laws that give police the authority to pull a motorist over simply for not wearing a seat belt. The question, though, isn’t whether it’s prudent to buckle-up — of course it is. Rather, it’s whether failing to wear a seat belt ought to qualify as a “moving violation” — and give police pretext to pull over an otherwise law-abiding motorist.
Not wearing a seat belt may increase your risk of injury or death if there is an accident. But is that anyone’s business but yours? Not wearing a seat belt has about as much effect on others as failing to eat right or exercise. It increases your personal risk, perhaps — but it’s really no one’s business but your own. What’s next — random blood pressure and cholesterol checkpoints? Are they going to begin issuing cops calipers to measure our body fat ratio?
Turning on the flashing lights and pointing Glocks our way for this “violation” is completely over the top — and ought to stop.
6) Sobriety Checkpoints
In the name of law and order, we’ve come to accept the idea of being randomly stopped, questioned and made to produce ID — rigmarole that would be familiar to a citizen of Berlin in 1940 or Moscow in 1970. “Your papers, please!” is not what America is supposed to be all about. The goal of getting drunks of the road is beside the point. Probable cause is — or ought to be — the point.
It’s wrong to subject people who have done absolutely nothing to suggest they’ve been drinking and driving to random stops and interrogations. It violates one of the most basic tenets of the Western European legal theory going back to Magna Carta. Until you, specifically, have given the authorities a specific reason to suspect that you have violated (or may be about to violate) a law, the authorities should have no authority to interfere with you in any way. That we have lost sight of this basic, once-cherished principle and are so willing to give it up in the name of “safety” or “getting drunks off the road” shows we’re very far down a Dark Road, indeed.
By all means, stop and check out any driver who appears to be weaving, driving erratically or otherwise giving good reason to suspect he may be liquored up. But leave the rest of us alone and free to go about our business until we’ve given good reason to warrant a closer look.