Sunday, June 29, 2008

Dying to Get Out of Prison

With the recent headline Supreme Court Rejects Death Penalty for Child Rape one of the most emotionally debated issues, the death penalty has again made it into the news and as an issue in the presidential election where somewhat surprisingly both candidates have criticized the Supreme Court's decision.

When arguing the pros and cons of the death penalty, most of us are thinking of the punishment for murder although treason or espionage is also punishable by death in the US. Perhaps the most famous historical example is the execution of The Rosenbergs in 1953 after being convicted of passing secrets on the US atomic bomb to the Soviet Union.

But the question for the Supreme Court was — other than the present exceptions of treason or espionage, can the death penalty be applied for other crimes when the victim did not die? The controversial decision by a narrow 5-4 margin was “no”. Those in favor of the death penalty for child rape say that although the child is not killed, he or she suffers severe emotional damage for life which is almost as bad and which deserves a similar punishment to murder. Those on the other side feel that the death penalty is questionable enough for murder so expanding it to other crimes, no matter how reprehensible, is inappropriate.

As for me, I have been in favor of the death penalty for especially heinous crimes. From just an emotional standpoint, most of us would feel that no less than death would be appropriate for somebody like Timothy McVeigh who was convicted of the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people. What if we had captured Adolph Hitler alive or what if we capture and convict Osama bin Laden? In these admittedly extreme examples, I believe that most people would agree that any punishment less than death would be absurd.

But the unmistakable trend around the world is that with the notable exceptions of China and Iran, capital punishment is becoming less and less used. Many opponents feel it is barbaric; some feel that life imprisonment is a sufficient enough punishment without having to resort to the taking of lives — especially if there is no chance of parole. One of the arguments in favor of the death penalty was that life imprisonment wasn’t really for life. Looking at how it is applied around the world life imprisonment often means that the prisoner will eventually be paroled with good behavior. This is why as an alternative to the death penalty, some of the most evil criminals have been sentenced to multiple consecutive life terms to make sure parole will never happen.

But here in the US, the option of life imprisonment without possibility of parole has been advocated as a more civilized alternative to the death penalty. While some may feel that a murderer is getting off too easy by not being executed, it is worth noting that more than a few convicted murderers made the choice to demand that their legal teams stop fighting for their lives and allow their executions. Apparently they felt that that they would rather die now than endure the possibly many years until their natural deaths in prison. Even if one believes that the death penalty is a deterrent to murder (which is questionable in many people’s view), it would be most difficult in my view to make a persuasive argument that life imprisonment without parole would be any less of a deterrent.

One of the possibly persuasive arguments for the death penalty is the leverage it may give the prosecution for plea bargains. In exchange for the death penalty being dropped, a defendant may plead guilty and/or perhaps aid in the successful prosecution of others who may have been involved in the crime. But an equally effective deal in the absence of the death penalty may be the offering of the possibility of parole as part of a life sentence in exchange for cooperation.

But on the other hand, the prosecution in the infamous O.J. Simpson trial for double murder made the decision that getting a conviction of the celebrity ex football star would be more difficult if the death penalty was a possibility. So they announced up front that they would not seek the death penalty despite the especially grisly nature of these murders. The O.J. trial and its subsequent acquittal have given tremendous ammunition to those who have argued that the death penalty as applied is unfair because people with more financial resources can hire better legal representation and thus fare a lot better in the courts than those of more modest means.

Politicians who underestimate how emotional this issue is with so many voters do so at their own peril. And probably none more than Michael Dukakis who in a 1988 presidential TV debate when questioned whether he would want the death penalty if someone had raped and killed his wife. Rather than admitting what most of us would be feeling in that situation which is that we would not only want that person put to death but we would want to do the job ourselves if we could — he just replied in a strangely emotionless response that since he was against the death penalty, the answer would be no.

It is widely believed that this response alone greatly contributed to his defeat. But besides being what was arguably an unfair question, it overlooks a fundamental principle that the only chance for justice to be fair is when it is administered by people who do not have any previous connection — emotional or otherwise — to those brought to trial. After all, Lady Justice is normally depicted as wearing a blindfold. But when the death penalty is imposed with the aim of ‘closure’ for the victim’s family, as much as we grieve for them, isn’t that just an indirect way of violating this same principle?

You will never see me at any of those candlelight demonstrations all too common outside the prisons where an execution is taking place. But I very much feel that we here in the US need to do what those in so many countries around the world have already done — which is to at least seriously question whether the death penalty is really worth all of the baggage it brings.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Choosing Our Words With Respect

In the last month, Johnny Miller, Don Imus, and Dick Cheney all made the news for what were considered by many to be either racially or ethnically insensitive remarks. How each of them was handled by the media and the general public says a lot about us.

When I heard
Johnny Miller's remarks about runner-up Rocco Mediate during the recent US Open golf telecast saying that Mediate "looks like the guy who cleans (Tiger Woods’) swimming pool." and also saying that, "Guys with the name 'Rocco' don't get on the trophy, do they?" I can honestly say that I didn’t get worked up at all even being of Italian descent but figured sooner or later, he was going to have to apologize — which he did.

Since Miller’s apology said that the remarks about somebody named 'Rocco' were not ethnic in nature, I will give him the benefit of the doubt. But even if the remark was only in reference to his unique name, he overlooked the fact that someone with the name ‘Tiger’ has his name on the trophy along with a fellow born with the name
Eugenio Saracini who by the way, also won a few other golf tournaments — The Masters, British Open and PGA Championship.

And while I in no way want to see anything happen to Miller for those remarks, I can’t help but think that if he were to have said something insensitive about Tiger or any other person of color, he would likely have been fired on the spot instead of just having to give an apology. Which reminds me of happy-go-lucky golfing jokester Fuzzy Zoeller
who during a 1997 interview at The Masters, passed along some tongue-in-cheek advice for the next year’s Champion’s Dinner that Tiger Woods “..not..serve fried chicken next year..or collard greens or whatever the hell they serve." Being self-employed, he couldn’t get fired. But he did lose his two major endorsement deals that generated a great deal of his income.

As for Don Imus, he did eventually lose his job last year over his
racial comments on the Rutgers women’s basketball team and is in hot water again for what are perceived as racial comments on football player Adam "Pac-Man" Jones. How this will turn out is still up in the air as of this posting, but Al Sharpton is again lurking in the background deciding whether to again mount a campaign to get Imus fired.

Dick Cheney also made a comment early this month saying "So we had Cheneys on both sides of the family — and we don't even live in West Virginia." But
Cheney's insult inferring that a group of people practices incest apparently didn’t even rate an apology.

Is there something wrong with this picture? I think so.

While political correctness can be maddening enough to many of us, the dramatic inconsistencies in the way it is applied makes it even worse. So what causes these admitted double standards? In my view, it comes down to who we or the media fear reprisal from the most. Nowadays, a number of groups have the ability to cause serious havoc by way of demonstrations and boycotting. For someone offending blacks, there are publicity hounds Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, along with the NAACP and others to raise hell and get negative attention for the object of their wrath. For those who practice sexism, there are enough feminist groups to go around there too. And so on for other groups. Making fun of Italians might have gotten NBC into enough hot water to at least make them want to offer an apology just in case which is what of course Johnny Miller did.

But when it comes to people like rural Americans or yes, even swimming pool cleaners who don’t have a publicly active group to support them, insensitivity to them seems to become a non-issue. This is why our outrage over issues like discrimination seems so terribly selective. For example, if someone from a protected minority suffers discrimination in the workplace, laws along with a group representing the minority affected are in place to try and protect this person. But if someone else in the workplace is suffering from workplace discrimination for reasons not having to do with being a protected minority, nobody really cares.

I have a simple but admittedly idealistic solution to all of this. Maybe, just maybe, we should all try to adopt the attitude that each of us has worth as a human being that is no better or worse than anybody else. OK, people like Saddam Hussein and Adolph Hitler make this a stretch but stay with me on this one. I’m not just talking about people of different races and ethnic backgrounds but also where they are on the social/economic ladder. Yes, we can respect great golfers like Tiger Woods while recognizing that the world also needs people to do the less glamorous but still necessary jobs like cleaning his pool. Human nature being what it is, we will still have the need to occasionally criticize or poke fun at one another. But if we would all make more of an effort to choose our electronically sent words to be the same ones we would use if speaking to that person face-to-face, we would all be a hell of a lot better off!

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Day The Levees Died

Who can forget Don McLean’s classic American Pie? And that catchy refrain that went...

So, Bye-bye, Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee
But the levee was dry

Were you one of those who asked, “What’s a levee?” I know I was. But now, because of Katrina and New Orleans and now the terrible flooding of communities along the Mississippi, we know all too well about this word that is again
in the news.

In the case of New Orleans, so much of our focus and outrage was on the rescue effort (or lack of it) along with the rebuilding (or again the lack of it). But while helping people in an emergency should obviously be our first priority, there are a couple of vital questions that become overshadowed. Could we have prevented these tragedies? and How can we prevent them from happening again?

In my view, there are two main reasons that these two questions are often put on the back burner. One is that it’s all too easy to say that these were natural disasters and you can’t fight Mother Nature. The other reason is that talking about the infrastructure just isn’t sexy enough for most people to care. If say, a year ago, someone were to suggest that we put more time and money into repairing our bridges before they start to collapse and kill people, it would get little more than a yawn. That is until the
bridge disaster last year in Minneapolis finally made infrastructure a presidential campaign talking point — at least for a while.

As for the vital questions pertaining to New Orleans,
Senate Committee Hearings have determined that the Army Corps of Engineers’ flawed design of the levees greatly contributed to the disaster. And to add insult to injury, there are serious questions about whether there are design flaws in the replacement levees.

Although the flooding on the Mississippi is an ongoing story at the time of this posting, CNN’s Drew Griffin presented
a most interesting report that questions whether the levees built to control the Mississippi are actually causing worse flooding. According to the report, East St. Louis, IL will not likely have to face the worst of the flooding because so many levees have failed upstream thus relieving the force of the river on levees for those communities downstream. This directly questions the design soundness of the system of levees on the Mississippi since if the levees upstream had held, the communities downstream would be in more jeopardy of having their levees fail instead!

This begs the question of whether it is a sound practice to develop and live in lands that are so prone to flooding. It’s easy to dismiss this all by saying that if people are foolish enough to live in these areas, they deserve what they get. But I think that greatly oversimplifies the problem. No matter what ones political persuasion is, I think most of us can agree that it is a legitimate function of the federal government (in this case, the U.S. Corps of Engineers) to design and maintain these levees for the protection of its citizens. Therefore, it makes sense that we should be able to rely on the people designing and maintaining these levees to help decide where it is safe to live.

Reclaiming land from the rivers or seas isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The Netherlands has done this for centuries. But the big difference is that having made a choice to do this, they have committed themselves to doing it right by not skimping on money or engineering as in their
Delta Works flood protection system. After all, people’s lives hang in the balance!

Why can’t we here in the US see this in the same way? If it is determined that a system of levees to reliably protect an area is either impossible or impractical, we should just admit it and relocate the affected people to safer areas. But if we determine that properly designed levees will indeed work, then we owe it to the people we are protecting to do the job right without trying to cut corners.

Right now, we are in no-man’s land where we are doing little more than a half-hearted effort whose priority appears to be more about trying to save money than protecting lives and property. For example, it only makes sense to rebuild the levees in New Orleans to withstand a Category 5 hurricane to protect it against future storms like Katrina as advocated in
this link. Instead the argument has been raised that we cannot afford to strengthen the levees beyond a Category 3. This is even more wrong if you accept the judgment of climatologists who are predicting the occurrence of more strong storms in the future due to climate changes from the warming of our atmosphere.

Few of us want to see government programs come back that are as extensive as the
WPA or CCC which were part of FDR’s New Deal to fight the Great Depression. But for a country that is now going through tough economic times, investing in the infrastructure would not only create jobs but leave us and future generations (the ones who will be stuck with the bill for our deficit spending) with something worthwhile in the form of improved and safer levees, bridges and the like. If nothing else, it’s sure as hell a better way to get something of lasting value out of our tax dollars than spending it on wars or even those economic stimulus checks!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Why I'm Not Sure

I have been spending my Mondays at Priority Two a faith-based organization that provides valuable support and skills for those of us in the Pittsburgh area who are “between jobs”. Our leader normally starts our sessions by leading us in prayer but this time, he unexpectedly asked if I wanted to do the prayer. As one who only attends church for weddings and funerals, I felt most uncomfortable doing this especially with the number of others in our group who have openly shared their strong faith.

“I’m not qualified to do this.” I said sheepishly. “Are you a heathen?” he asked. “No, but sometimes I’m not sure.”

I felt bad afterwards. Maybe it wasn’t the time or place to talk about this but I was just sharing my honest feelings. But when you think about it, how many of us are really sure about the existence of God? After all, it is about faith which is defined in the dictionary as “belief in, devotion to, or trust in somebody or something, especially without logical proof” Especially for those of us whose science education demands that we insist on proof before accepting something as truth, this can present problems.

For those of us who have never experienced a direct revelation of God, all we can do is study and follow the revelations of others through scripture to help us try and find our way. But even this presents problems because of
inconsistent revelations that can not only be inconsistent but mutually exclusive. If God is really there and wants us to know him, why does he throw us off the trail like this?

I really believe that a lot more people question their faith at least on occasion more than they let on. And believe it or not, even those in theology can question their faith as in this wonderful article I would like to share with you.
Windmills - To know faith is to ask questions

One of the occupational hazards of advanced work in religion is the nagging doubt that one is chasing a chimera. Years of focusing on texts, apologetics, history and cultural studies leaves one parsed, deconstructed and problematized to such an extent that one wonders if the natural by-product of all this study is not a deeper emotional attachment but rather an abject poverty of attachment: One wonders if indeed there is even anything at all to this God business.
Especially since the author was kind enough to provide an E-mail contact, I was moved to send her the following E-mail:

Dear Sandra,

I have often wondered how people who have done extensive study in religion deal with it regarding their own faith. Thank you for writing this fascinating article to help give us some insights on all of this.

My question to you concerns the directly conflicting doctrine of different faiths, specifically Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. On many issues, not the least of which is the divinity of Jesus, at least one of the faiths MUST be wrong. How does someone who is a devout Christian believing in the New Testament for example, reconcile this with the teachings of the Quran which are often directly contradictory to Christianity but also devoutly followed by many others? It would be easy to just say that the other guys are just mistaken, but that is not a satisfying answer.

A more specific example applies to wine. Going back to ancient times, it has been an integral part of Jewish laws and traditions along with later becoming a central focus of the Roman Catholic Mass. But when the Quran was later revealed to Mohammed to correct the supposedly distorted revelations of the Old and New Testaments, alcohol was then declared to be taboo. Huh??

Can you please give me some insight on how somebody who wants to be a believer can try to reconcile all of this?

Thank you!

Tony Polombo
Delmont, PA

Often times when writing E-mails like this to article writers, I get no answer. Perhaps the crush of incoming E-mails from all over in response to their articles is too much to deal with. But it wasn’t long before I received the following incredibly thoughtful and beautiful response:

From: s collins
To: Tony Polombo
Subject: Re: Windmills - a much longer answer than you probably wanted!

Mr. Polombo,
First, thank you for your kind letter. It's always good to know that one is read!

Secondly, well, I'll do the best I can with your concerns. But this is one of the vexing questions of religious orthodoxy and a response from the academy rather than the pulpit might not be terribly satisfying.

How does one reconcile the claims of one monotheistic tradition against another? Who is right or who has the truth? On the surface, those who study religions don’t deal in truth claims since all religions claim to have access to Truth (capitalization intentional). Some are more ardent in discounting the claims of others, some are not. For example, Buddhism isn’t terribly interested in weighing their truth-claims against Christianity or Judaism. Christianity, for its part, makes very sincere claims about Jesus as the way, the truth and the light and therefore, is at pains to show the error of those paths that fail to privilege Jesus as lord and savior. But those who study religions, whether they believe one particular religion or not, have to give due consideration to each without deciding the relative merits or truth of one over the other. Therefore, questions of truth or the wrongness of any particular tradition really don’t have much bearing.

For clergy, obviously, their task is different: they are religious professionals, called to a particular religious expression. If they did not accept and believe in the absolute merits of their particular religion, how could they possibly be taken seriously as clergy? They must, as a matter of course, accept the Truth of their tradition to have any success at all in their call. Whether they feel their job is simply to celebrate their particular religious tradition or to denigrate all others in order to build up their own – well, that’s a matter of each person’s call, is it not?

What religious scholars are interested in is showing the ways in which each tradition values and talks about God or the divine or transcendence and how each deals with things like life and death, good and evil, happiness and suffering.

Anyways, let me leave this overly-long response with a quote from the Dalai Lama. He is responding to your question: what to do with competing claims from so many religions. Basically, he says the following:

Human beings naturally possess different interests. So, it is not surprising that we have many different religious traditions with different ways of thinking and behaving. But this variety is a way for everyone to be happy. If we have a great variety of food, we will be able to satisfy different tastes and needs. When we only have bread, the people who eat rice are left out. And the reason those people eat rice is that rice is what grows best where they live.

The idea is this: God speaks to God’s people in ways in which they can best hear Him. The Israelites in the Old Testament heard God’s voice through Moses and the prophets. For the New Testament community and beyond, God’s message came through Jesus and the apostles’ writings. This isn’t relativizing God; it’s saying God is free to communicate with God’s people—all of God’s people—as God sees fit, not according to our standards. Your job, according to this sort of thinking, is to be the very best Christian (or Jew or Muslim) you possibly can be. Do the things that Christianity calls you to. The Dalai Lama seems to be saying that God grows best where He finds a good home and if you are a Christian, then be the very best Christian you can be and don’t concern yourself about whether Buddhists or Muslims are right or wrong. Concern yourself with your relationship with God. If we are God’s temple, then the task is to create the best home you know how, with the information that you have been given. And what is that information? According to Christ, it’s love the Lord thy God and love thy neighbor as thyself, because everything else depends upon these (Matt.22.36-40).

~sandee collins

So where to go from here?

One devoutly faithful friend of mine with whom I shared this E-mail exchange said like in the Nike commercials – JUST DO IT! and don’t worry about which religion is right. Others feel that since we will never know for sure about God during this life that they should put their energies elsewhere. As for me, I plan to do what I can to find God through prayer and living life as the best person I can be. And hopefully, I will find Him someday — preferably before I leave this world!

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Why Not Medicare for Everybody?

Just recently, I was invited to attend a presentation on single-payer health insurance, a system that Medicare is based on to insure citizens who are 65 and older in the US. What it lacked in balance, it sure made up in passionate belief from the presenters and audience for the need for single-payer insurance.

Only a few miles away, I attended another meeting last summer. But this time it was a Town Meeting to meet and ask questions of US Senator Arlen Specter, a Republican representing my home state of Pennsylvania. There too, a number of passionate people asked questions of the Senator on when we can expect help from the government to address what is rapidly becoming a health care crisis in America. While he said that something needed to be done, he firmly declared that the government shouldn’t be getting involved in health insurance — which immediately got a huge ovation from much of the crowd. Many of those clapping were surely over 65 and thus getting their health insurance from the government through Medicare. Did the irony of this dawn on any of these people, I wondered?

Of all the issues facing us this election year, it’s hard to imagine one that directly affects so many people in the US in such a profound way. Most of know about the roughly 47 million without health insurance and the countless millions more who are underinsured. But what the two examples above show is that this is an issue that is often driven far more by political ideology than the search for real solutions.

So maybe we should just strip the BS away and just look at what doesn’t work and what does. Then we can try to solve the problem by getting rid of what doesn’t work and adding more of what does. Are you with me? Let’s go!

What Doesn’t Work

Relying on employers as the basic source of health insurance It works if you can get (and keep) a job at a large company that offers health insurance. But even some large companies only offer health insurance for full-time employees while making sure to keep as many employees as possible at part-time hours. What about those at smaller companies where decent health insurance can be too expensive to offer while at the same time trying to stay competitive? Sometimes companies make the decision on whether to hire American workers and also pick up the tab for health insurance or locate factories out of the country without this worry. And we all know where this has gone lately. What about people who have lost their jobs through illness or otherwise? What about people who want to become entrepreneurs and start their own businesses but cannot because of the cost of health insurance for themselves and possibly their employees? This is especially unfortunate because small businesses generate many of our new jobs.

High-deductible health insurance policies It may sound appealing to some, but it is a phony solution at best. Most of those who need to buy this type of insurance are economically struggling to begin with. So they will likely forgo the preventative care that is not covered and if they have to go to the hospital may well be stuck with a bill that is large enough to cause serious hardship if not bankruptcy. What’s the point of insurance if it doesn’t protect against financial hardship or catastrophe?

Having to buy health insurance directly from insurance companies Some Republican presidential candidates have said that it might be a good idea if we would all do this. For those of us who have been there, it is a plain case of the need to be careful of what you wish for. An individual compared to a large company has almost no bargaining power with insurance companies. And it shows in the often unaffordable premiums that drive many into the ranks of the uninsured. While insurers may be glad to compete for healthy people to insure, those with “pre-existing conditions” often cannot get health insurance at any price, let alone a reasonable one.

What Does Work

Medicare Like any program, it has its problems but overall it does work. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t heard any complaints from senior citizens that they should have the right to buy their own health insurance instead of having to rely on the government. But what is remarkable is how well Medicare works considering that everybody in the program is 65 and older bringing along all of the health issues associated with that age group. If Medicare works for a group like this, wouldn’t it work at least as well if everybody else including all of the younger and healthier people were included? This works in Canada. Other similar systems work throughout the world. So why not Medicare for everybody here in the US?

John McCain's Healthcare Plan and Barack Obama's Healthcare Plan attempt to address the What Doesn’t Work issues by trying to either force or persuade the health insurance companies to offer competitively priced and affordable health insurance to everybody without regard to those pesky “pre-existing conditions” getting in the way. Would either be successful? This would require the insurance companies to completely change the ways they do business that have resulted in their handsome profits. Can you see that happening? I know I can’t.

So looking at What Does Work, why not expand Medicare to include everybody? A bill in the US House of Representatives,
H.R. 676 asks just that! Most Republicans oppose this for ideological reasons like “Socialized Medicine” and “More Big Government”. But even some Democrats are reluctant to support this bill not necessarily on its merits but the fear of being labeled “Too Liberal”. Indeed, only Dennis Kucinich of the Democratic presidential candidates supported this bill. But at this writing, the bill has 90 co-sponsors in the House so the last word on this has yet to be spoken. For those who are interested, an in-depth FAQ on single-payer health insurance that addresses some of the questions and concerns is in this link.

For those who haven’t seen it, the Michael Moore movie Sicko now available on DVD would be a real eye-opener to the suffering (and sometimes needless death) caused by our present health care system. While Moore has a well-deserved reputation as a liberal agitator from his previous movies, I urge those of you who haven’t to at least consider giving this surprisingly apolitical movie a look. And for those who have seen the movie, the 90 minutes of DVD extras are also quite thought provoking.

In closing, I hope you will take the time to become more informed about this vital but complex issue. It has been estimated that nearly 18,000 die annually in the US for lack of health insurance. So for some people, maybe even you or a loved one, it could someday literally mean the difference between life and death! Just something to think about.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Speed Trap Industry

Sometimes you get involved in an issue looking from the outside. In this case I became a part of one through no choice of my own. While driving on a stretch of 4-lane divided highway I had driven hundreds of times before, a policeman pulled out behind me flashing his lights. Like every other time before, I was going at about the same speed as everybody all around me on a busy road so I figured he was just going after somebody else who may have been driving faster up ahead. But when I slowed down to let him pass it was apparent that I was the one he was after.

“Do you know why I pulled you over?” he said. After replying “No” he informed me that I was driving 52 in a 40mph zone. Although I was emotionally stunned, our conversation was cordial. I remarked that if he was pulling people over for stuff like this, he could literally write tickets continuously all day long if he wanted to. He said that he would be returning to his outpost to write more tickets and that he was doing this as special overtime duty funded by the Pa. Department of Transportation (PennDOT). After handing me the ticket, he then suggested that if I had the time, I should ask for a hearing which would likely get me a lesser fine and maybe the points dropped.

Later after looking at the ticket, I saw the words “Smooth Operator” at the bottom. What did that mean? One of my neighbors who is a retired policeman then told me that this is a state funded program to combat aggressive driving. A look through some search engines gave me this article.

13 county officers recognized for curbing aggressive drivers

This strongly suggested that my speeding ticket was not just an isolated incident but part of a coordinated effort to rack up a wholesale number of traffic tickets throughout the area. At this point, it was no longer an issue of ‘my’ ticket but a question of whether lots of people were being ripped-off by this program that was allegedly there to promote safety. Somebody had to speak up and ask the tough questions. It might as well be me! So I wrote to Joe Grata, the longtime Transportation Editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to get his thoughts on all of this. He later called to tell me that he would be running an article incorporating my comments and concerns. The next day, this appeared in the Post-Gazette.

Police crackdown snares thousands of 'aggressive' drivers

In nearly 40 years of driving, Tony Polombo of Delmont has gotten two speeding tickets, the latest for traveling 52 mph in a 40 mph zone on divided, four-lane Route 22 through Murrysville.

A police officer working overtime stopped him as part of the state's 2-year-old "Smooth Operator" program intended to target aggressive driving.

Mr. Polombo wasn't pleased.

"Aggressive driving is normally boorish behavior where a driver is going much faster than others, maybe tailgating, maybe constantly changing lanes," he argued. "We all would like to see this kind of behavior ticketed. But driving above the speed limit, no matter how safely or courteously, is being enforced as aggressive driving."
Some folks like Fred Honsberger who read this article on his KDKA Radio show that day admonished me by name saying that “You shouldn’t do the crime if you can’t do the time”. But a number of other people felt differently as in this response in one of Mr. Grata’s later columns.

Speeding response. The federally funded, state-sponsored program that targets aggressive driving and resulted in 3,370 citations April 6-20 in Allegheny, Beaver and Lawrence counties did not sit well with lots of people, including Doug Ament.

"Smooth Operator does not make me feel any safer," he e-mailed. "The feds bribe cops with overtime pay so they can send them out to write thousands of questionable tickets. I live in Murrysville and 52 mph is not aggressive or dangerous for that road," a reference to Export [sic] resident Tony Polombo, who was ticketed on Route 22 in Murrysville for driving at that speed during the crackdown.

Mr. Ament said time and money would be better spent on traffic safety by enforcing violations such as failing to yield at merge points or engaging in such practices as weaving, tailgating and running yellow lights.

"That I would like to see!" he said.

So am I against speed enforcement? No. Some people do drive in a way that makes them a threat to the safety of themselves and others on the road. I along with everybody else want safe roads. The problem is that under our present system, it is too easy for speed enforcement to become much more of an abusive revenue generating device instead of one that is there to promote safety.

The idea of imposing fines is to punish the person who committed the infraction. But when the people administering the fines are financially benefiting from them, it’s only a matter of time before human nature takes over and people begin to take advantage of this situation.

So who is financially benefiting from a program like Smooth Operator? In addition to the usual suspects like the local municipalities and the auto insurance companies (through surcharges), in this program the policemen themselves get overtime pay for not only writing the tickets but appearing at the hearings. Suppose we were to find out after the fact that a referee at a sporting event was not only getting a salary but also a bonus based on the number of fouls or penalties given out? Since this would distort the officiating and thus the integrity of the game, nobody would stand for this but when it comes to programs like this, why should we not question its integrity also?

But it is easy to dismiss all of this by saying that people wouldn’t get speeding tickets if they didn’t speed. While this has some truth, it overlooks the other part of the problem which is the unrealistically low speed limits that appear in all too many places which provide abundant opportunities for speeding ticket revenue.

So what is a realistic speed limit? Although most people are unaware of it, traffic engineers who set speed limits go by a fundamental principle that a great majority of drivers (about 85%) will drive a stretch of road at a sensible speed that combines safety and efficiency.

See the following PDF link. How are speed limits set?

When speed limits for a road are determined by traffic engineering studies, at least 85% of the drivers will be in compliance. Those who drive at a speed that is unsafe for the road are at risk for getting a ticket – as they should be. But unfortunately, many needlessly low speed limits are posted for arbitrary and sometimes political reasons. When this happens, many or most drivers are now non-compliant. So now even perfectly safe drivers are at risk for getting tickets if somebody decides to take advantage of this situation to raise revenue.

Shouldn’t we change the laws we don’t like instead of just ignoring them? In a law-abiding society, the answer is yes. Enough people decided that the national 55 mph law was an idea whose time was past. And since Congress passed this law to begin with, it was simply a matter of working with Congress the repeal it.

But speed limits are many times a decision of individual communities. These communities enforce the laws and run the traffic courts. According to most sources, about 97% of speeding tickets are not contested. Undoubtedly, many of these are innocent people who feel that the fix is in and resisting is hopeless. So what are the realistic chances of getting a traffic law changed, especially in a community you do not live in? And what if that community is taking advantage of low speed limits to help fund its budget instead of the more painful alternative of raising taxes? Good luck!

So if there is any attempt to change the law that has a chance to be effective, it would likely have to be at the state level. If the state government could require local communities to re-post speed limits on their major thoroughfares based on traffic engineering studies instead of arbitrary and political motives, this would be tremendously helpful in returning the purpose of speed enforcement to being about safety. Even communities that continue to try and raise revenues through speed traps will have a tougher time with more reasonable speed limits in place.

But in addition, we should encourage state governments to take the profit motive out of local speed enforcement by having them forward their proceeds to the state treasury. If a community still needs to devote some of its time and resources to traffic enforcement, it can be done on its own merits instead of the money it brings in.

I first read about speed traps being described as an “industry” in one of the car magazines many years ago. And while this view may well be on the money, their credibility on this issue has always been on shaky ground. After all, is their love of performance automobiles consistent with a desire to drive at law-abiding speeds?

But even so, I feel that the word “industry” may be too kind. It implies something that makes money by providing products people want to buy. This is different. Programs like Smooth Operator makes money by confiscating it from its citizens in what amounts to little more than a legalized shakedown scheme. But what’s worst of all is that some of the people we are paying to protect and govern us are in on it! This is what more people need to be outraged about! We deserve better! But only if more people care enough to speak up and ask the tough questions of those who govern us!!