“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."
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.
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!!