Traffic Tickets: A Tax Increase By Other Means

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

Governments all over the country are looking for creative ways to increase their cashflow — without a formal tax raise. Instead of filching through everyone’s pockets via a new sales tax or jacking up the real estate assessment — actions that generate outrage among the peasantry, especially as the economy implodes — pols have figured out that they can generate a tsunami of cash simply by imposing and then enforcing traffic laws virtually all of us routinely flout, such as “speeding.”

Of course, this is an old method — but the means are entirely modern. Instead of using one Enos Straight with a radar gun — an individualized process that only allows a single cop to issue one ticket at a time — a “Terminator” like grid of automated enforcement is being erected all across the country. In theory, it could catch every speeder every time.

Huge sums are involved. For example, in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Chevy Chase, MD — a community of 2,000 people with a town budget of $4.6 million — photo enforcement has goosed ticket revenue from $8,000 a month to a quarter-million, according to Chevy Chase Village Manager Geoffrey Biddle.

In Scottsdale, AZ — one of the earliest and most aggressive deployers of automated enforcement technology — the get is close to $18 million annually.

This is serious money — and at a time when overt tax increases have become politically unthinkable in most areas, camera money is a godsend for the local (and state) politicos.

The genius of it, though, is not the money it brings in. It’s the way the public’s own good intentions are mercilessly used against it.

Everyone’s for “safe driving.” And, ipso facto, every traffic law that’s passed is naturally the very essence of “safety.” Thus, anyone who complains is — just as ipso facto — obviously in favor “unsafe driving.”

But we all know this is not so. Few of us, for example, look at a friend/family member issued a ticket for speeding in the same way we look at someone who kited a check or boosted a stereo. Yet both are against the law. True, the former is typically just a civil offense whereas the latter involve criminal charges. Nonetheless, few of us consider a person who gets caught in a radar trap a moral defective. Most of us know, deep down, that such a person has done absolutely nothing wrong at all.

Despite the “safety” hard sell, we know that when virtually everyone ignores or routinely violates a law, the law itself is probably not quite right. Just as most of us don’t steal, rape or kill — or even shoplift — so few of us drive in a manner that is genuinely dangerous. We’re neither homicidal — nor suicidal. The same common sense that keeps most of us from sticking our hands into a running blender or operating a circular saw without eye protection also keeps us behaving reasonably when behind the wheel.

That means we drive at “reasonable and prudent” speeds — most of us, most of the time. Yes, there are exceptions (and it’s these guys who need to be ticketed) but traffic surveys show, consistently, that most drivers (85 percent of us) drive within 5-10 mph of a “natural” speed on any given road. This “natural” speed is what’s conversationally referred to as  the “flow” of traffic; in traffic safety engineering circles, it’s called the 85th percentile speed.

This is the speed that is supposed to correspond to posted maximum speed limits — not in my opinion, but in the carefully calculated reasoning of traffic safety engineers. State and local governments are supposed to adhere to the 85th percentile rule (it is even mandated by law in some cases) yet in practice, posted limits are routinely set 5-10 mph below what they ought to be. What this dirty little trick does is transform the 85 percent of us who drive reasonably and prudently into “speeders” ripe for a piece of payin’ paper — and a fat fine.

If things weren’t so corrupt — that is, set up specifically and deliberately to turn almost all of us into offenders every single time we get behind the wheel — only about 10-15 percent of the drivers out there (those who drive considerably faster than the 85th percentile speed) would ever have to worry about tickets, photo-enforced or not.

Instead, it’s all of us who are in the gunsights — or rather, the camera’s sights.

And, for the most part, it’s become impossible to protest — let alone escape the fleecing. The PR organ grinds out its saccharine message of “safety, safety safety!” — with the full cooperation of the media, which dances around to the tune like monkeys at their master’s feet. The reporters know it’s BS. Even the cop who pulled you over knows it’s BS (follow him a while and just see how rigorously he obeys the posted limit). The judges recite the same old mantra; we pretend to agree — if it means dodging the “points” that come with a ticket for “speeding.”

It’s all a gigantic farce; always has been. But thanks to the efficiency of modern technology, it’s become a lot more lucrative.

The net’s closing fast, too.

It’s still possible to at least try to slip through. One web site, posts a continuously updated list of known photo-enforcement locations. But a public cowed into submission by its own support for anything with “safety” in the tag line — and a government ravenous for “revenue” — bodes for an unhappy future, indeed.

We’re gonna miss old Enos and his radar gun. The odds were much more even back then…

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