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!!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am the Magisterial District Judge who convicted Mr. Polombo of speeding, although I found him guilty of driving only 5 miles over the posted 40 MPH limit on State Route 22. He will not receive "points", although that is not a guarantee that his insurer will not do a random audit of all policyholders whose name starts with "P", paying $8 to PennDot for each record. Of course, the insurer won't find it if it looks on a day before the disposition is posted. The PennDot computer is not interfaced with the Insurance Company's. More insurers are paying to find these records in light of competition from the Safe-Autos of the world, an agent explained to me.
First of all, I hope that I have resolved the issue of the "fix being in" as I gave Mr. Polombo ample time and oppurtunity to defend the case, and I think he would agree. I also hope that he realizes that most of the costs on the ticket do not go to the Municipality,but to the state. The Commonwealth only shares 1/2 of the fine (the amount shown in the top block) with the local government. Other costs added are for Energency Medical Services, the Catasrophic Loss Fund (to bail out expensive medical bill and also pay M.D.'s malpractice premiums) court costs (to only somewhat defray the County's costs in funding the Courts) and the J.C.P.,or as the Cops refer to it - "Judges' Christmas Party", which is really the Judicial Computer Project to bring us into the 21st Century. On a $25 fine out of a $108 ticket, the Municipality gets only $12.50. Hardly worth the gas. Therefore, I do believe in the sincerity of those responsible for implementing and executing "Smooth Operator". It is meant to save lives. Do I think it works? Who knows, it is impossible to quantify. A retired officer told me that after he had to knock on the door of the parents of a dead teenage driving daredevil, that he went crazy handing out tickets to everyone-for about a month until he realized he could never be sure of the effect. I do know that tickets are a behavior-modification tool, because a rarely see any recidivists -or, maybe they're just lucky?
I also do believe that even speeders are "aggressive". (Note that there is no such offense in the vehicle code, "aggressive" is a conclusion and we are interested in facts in Court). Obviously, some mild-mannered speeders get caught in the net, but we all see the maniacs weaving in and out, cutting people off. Since I have had this job, and drive the only maroon Trimph TR-6 convertible in town, I have modified my own testosterone-fueled driving habits, and find that I am better able to avoid the sudden emergency.