Faith-based governing

A recent news release sounded like transportation officials had joined a 12-step program. “All Vision Zero cities acknowlege …” it declared.

That article landed in my inbox shortly after I belatedly read Gabrielle Glaser’s award-winning article “The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous.” AA is one of the biggest faith-based programs out there.

Have you been ordered to attend AA? Judges like to do that, even though it’s unlikely to change your behavior. AA survives because it is an American tradition. Or an American religion. AA and the concept of a 12-step program are so embedded in our culture that people refuse to believe they don’t work. Even when science says there are better methods — Glaser’s article discusses them — we have faith in AA.

We also have faith in speed limits. We’ve grown up constantly being told the speed limit nobody obeys is important, it saves lives, the alternative is Mad Max. The science says otherwise, but who pays attention?

In Massachusetts we’re seeing another push to restrict cell phone use even more. The science says that doesn’t work, but who pays attention?

If traffic policy were scientific, it would right itself. At least in the long term. There’s a saying attributed to Max Planck, “science advances one funeral at a time.” People hold on to their views, and you may have to wait for the more stubborn conservatives to die, but in the long run the system works.

In our world, traffic policy is based on emotion. When people don’t listen to facts there is no correction process. I wrote about a clueless councilor voting for a speed limit reduction because she felt relaxed when she thought she was driving 25. She is the rule, not the exception. Judges send people to AA because people who drive drunk are alcoholics and AA is how we cure alcoholism. Both assumptions are wrong.

We’re going backwards.

In New York, Mayor de Blasio got religion and decided that motorists must be crushed under his boot. He overruled his engineers, lowered the speed limit, deployed speed cameras, and watched the city get more dangerous for pedestrians. Most pedestrian fatalities are not the result of failing to outrun cars. You are more likely to die getting run over from behind when a truck makes a slow turn and the driver doesn’t see you in the crosswalk.

What may have worked, the New York Times says, was redesigning a wide street. It’s unclear from the article if the redesigned street is an overall improvement, but the decline in pedestrian fatalities described by the Times is striking. Physical changes are much more effective than slogans and tickets, and much less attractive to policy makers.

If there were a bolt from heaven every time we broke the Ten Commandments, nobody would be around to read this. Or write it.

If there were an officer to arrest you every time you defied the whim of an emotional city councilor… none of them would be around. Enforcing traffic laws to the letter, every time, would trigger a violent revolution.

Like other religious prescriptions, traffic laws tend to be honored in the breach.

The opinions expressed in this post belong to the author and do not necessarily represent those of the National Motorists Association or the NMA Foundation. This content is for informational purposes and is not intended as legal advice. No representations are made regarding the accuracy of this post or the included links.

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