Public Hearings: How Have Our Expectations Sunk So Low?

By James Baxter, NMA President

I have long suffered the knowledge that most of what passes as public discussion on a range of political, social, cultural, and public policy issues is at best uninformed opinion and at worst deliberate and calculated lies.

In between we have myths, unfounded assumptions, old wives tales, emotional rants, vague and unproven claims, and attempts to mislead and confuse.

Candidness, clarity, and truth telling are rare commodities, rarest of all in the halls of government, not that the public sector has monopoly on duplicity and fabrication, but the public sector has the potential to do the most harm. Walmart can’t declare war and start dropping bombs and Ford doesn’t put people in prison for violating any one of several thousand laws.

In our narrow sliver of public policy activity, traffic laws and related motorist issues, duplicity is ubiquitous!

Certainly, there are differences of opinion based on personal values and individual attitudes, for example whether or not the government should compel vehicle passengers to wear seat belts. But, there are so many other situations where public officials and supposed “experts” make claims, pontificate on “findings” and assert facts for which there isn’t a shred of truth. Worse, it is incredibly improbable that they would be so dumb as to not know they are lying or deliberately misleading their audience.

There is no shortage of examples to prove my point, but a recent public hearing in Los Angeles concerning the continuation of the city’s red light ticket camera program provides a clear and uncompromising picture of a responsible public official lying to salvage the ticket camera program for which he is responsible.

He cares not that the public information from his own agency that disproves his claims is readily available to anyone who cares to look for it. He apparently believes that no one will find or point out his misstatements, and if they do he still will not suffer negative consequences to his position or reputation—unfortunately, he’s probably right. Public officials are regularly caught “misspeaking” or telling “untruths” and nothing of consequence happens.

Our expectations have sunk that low.

During the L.A. ticket camera hearing, Council Member Tony Cardenos asked Sgt. Mathew MacWillie, who manages the LAPD ticket camera program, a series of apparently scripted questions concerning the causes of crashes and traffic fatalities in the city. Sgt. MacWillie clearly laid blame on red light runners as the number one cause of crashes and traffic fatalities.

Here’s the expert, the public face and manager of a traffic safety program proclaiming that red light running is the number one cause of crashes and fatalities when published data from his own agency claims that red light running causes fewer than five percent of all crashes and fatalities! (Nationally, red light running is responsible for less than three percent of all traffic fatalities.)

Not to be outdone, Council Member Cardenos got into the act and pulled out the “it’s all about protecting the children” gambit and how it is so often that the victim is a child. Fewer than three percent of the traffic fatalities in L.A. were persons under 18 years of age.

There were numerous other statements that bore no relationship to fact or reality and no one is really called to task. Of course, if Mr Cardenos was confronted with his “it’s for the children” claim he would pull out the classic pearl “if it saves one live it’s worth it.”

Meanwhile, lost in the accident data, and concern for the children is the real reason the ticket camera program is under review and being considered for cancellation — it isn’t making any money for the city.

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