Friday, October 19, 2007

American Lawbreaking and Traffic Policy

(Image from Daily Placebo)

What follows are two stories that are related in a sense. The first part is from Tim Wu on Slate. He discusses American lawbreaking and and the forces that cause all of us, ordinary citizens, lawmakers, law enforcement, and the judiciary, to turn a blind eye toward some aspects of our laws. His article is in five parts, too long to include here so there is a brief excerpt below. I've included the excerpt about narcotics as an example, not as an advocacy piece on drugs. That's a thorny subject worthy of more nuance and depth than my post.

Since I'm a bike commuter and League of American Bicyclists instructor, bicycle safety is a big part of my focus on CycleDog. Laws that effect our ability to ride on the road are often misunderstood, misapplied, or simply ignored. The apparent goal of traffic planning it to facilitate motor vehicle travel, in effect increasing convenience for motorists to the detriment of cyclists and pedestrians. While we lobby for new, more effective laws intended to make our streets safer, we must acknowledge that these efforts will be futile if the laws are ignored or unenforced. As Wu points out ...tolerance of lawbreaking constitutes one of the nation's other major—yet most poorly understood—ways of creating social and legal policy. Almost as much as the laws that we enact, the lawbreaking to which we shut our eyes reflects how tolerant U.S. society really is to individual or group difference.” In effect, the almost universal disdain for speed limits reflects our society's view that exceeding the limit is acceptable and that the resulting carnage is acceptable too. Periodic enforcement actions meant to reduce speeding have merely temporary results. Likewise, the occasional enforcement action targeting cyclists who run stop signs is merely another temporary irritation. As soon as the cops are gone, traffic returns to normal.

But should it be that way? Traffic law is meant to provide a common template for behavior and thereby make traffic predictable. This predictability enhances the safety of all road users.

Motorists and cyclists, however, have different perceptions of safety. Another way of describing that is to say they have different ideas regarding risk, both real risk and perceived or imagined risk.

A ton or more of steel and glass gives the occupant a much different view of safe road behavior as opposed to wearing a Styrofoam hat and a couple layers of fabric. This difference was illustrated by a comment from a combat infantryman when he was asked about a new uniform he'd just been issued. “It's good,” he said, “but the buttons keep you too high off the ground.” While it's clearly a facetious comment, the buttons wouldn't be an issue for someone riding in a tank or an airplane. That infantryman had an entirely different view of personal safety involving factors that are of little or no concern to other military personnel.

That's equally true of cyclists and pedestrians. We have different issues regarding road safety, and our perception of safety is very much different from that of motorists. While it's certainly desirable for cyclists and motorists to share a common understanding of the rules of the road, cyclists need an additional skill set and an additional awareness of road hazards on top of that common understanding. We are at risk from things that a motorist simply doesn't see, like patches of sand, wet leaves, railroad crossings, or painted road surfaces when they're wet. That can lead to misunderstandings and conflicts. When a motorist understands why cyclists need to zig-zag across angled railroad crossings, for instance, they're less likely to crowd a cyclist or try to overtake him. Ideally, we'd address these conflicts through education programs aimed at both cyclists and motorists.

Our current transportation policy accepts 42,000 deaths as just another cost of having a modern highway system. Yet when we propose ideas to reduce those deaths, ideas like traffic cameras, more stringent driver's ed training, more enforcement of traffic laws, we immediately experience resistance. The public expects to go as fast as possible as often as possible. Road planning values convenience and speed over other considerations like safety, noise, stress, or quality of life. Trust me, when it's nearly impossible for an able-bodied adult to cross an urban street even at a signalized intersection, the negative effects of traffic are a quality of life issue. Cyclists and pedestrians are widely assumed to be not as important to road policy as motoring interests.

I don't expect that Americans would tolerate an extensive CCTV system like that used in the UK. Likewise, since the interstate highway system and similar high-speed roadways are fairly safe, it makes little sense to attempt to 'improve' their safety with reduced speed limits. But there's another proposal mentioned in the second piece below, an easily implemented law that would have a genuine impact on unnecessary deaths by reducing the speed limit in urban areas to 20 mph. That would be across the entire metro area and would include all streets. I'd expect that some motorists would rail against it, of course, because there's nothing as onerous as having to drive slowly. There's no question that it would reduce injuries and deaths, reduce noise, save fuel, and make our cities more liveable less stressful places.



American Lawbreaking

from: Tim Wu


Posted Sunday, Oct. 14, 2007, at 8:03 AM ET

...As this story suggests, American law is underenforced—and we like it that way. Full enforcement of every last law on the books would put all of us in prison for crimes such as "injuring a mail bag." No enforcement of our laws, on the other hand, would mean anarchy. Somehow, officials must choose what laws really matter.

This series explores the black spots in American law: areas in which our laws are routinely and regularly broken and where the law enforcement response is … nothing. These are the areas where, for one reason or another, we've decided to tolerate lawbreaking and let a law—duly enacted and still on the books—lay fallow or near dead.

...But tolerance of lawbreaking constitutes one of the nation's other major—yet most poorly understood—ways of creating social and legal policy. Almost as much as the laws that we enact, the lawbreaking to which we shut our eyes reflects how tolerant U.S. society really is to individual or group difference. It forms a major part of our understanding of how the nation deals with what was once called "vice." While messy, strange, hypocritical, and in a sense dishonest, widespread tolerance of lawbreaking forms a critical part of the U.S. legal system as it functions.

That Other Drug Legalization Movement

...what's particularly interesting about the Experience Vaults is how many of the drugs reviewed there aren't actually classic "illegal drugs," like heroin or cocaine, but rather pharmaceuticals, like Clonazepam.

That's because over the last two decades, the pharmaceutical industry has developed a full set of substitutes for just about every illegal narcotic we have. Avoiding the highly charged politics of "illegal" drugs, the pharmaceutical industry, doctors, and citizens have thus quietly created the means for Americans to get at substitutes for almost all the drugs banned in the 20th century. Through the magic of tolerated use, it's actually the other drug legalization movement, and it has been much more successful than the one you read about in the papers.

...Over the last two decades, the FDA has become increasingly open to drugs designed for the treatment of depression, pain, and anxiety—drugs that are, by their nature, likely to mimic the banned Schedule I narcotics. Part of this is the product of a well-documented relaxation of FDA practice that began under Clinton and has increased under Bush. But another part is the widespread public acceptance of the idea that the effects drug users have always been seeking in their illicit drugs—calmness, lack of pain, and bliss—are now "treatments" as opposed to recreation. We have reached a point at which it's commonly understood that when people snort cocaine because they're depressed or want to function better at work, that's drug trafficking; but taking antidepressants for similar purposes is practicing medicine.


Safety group urges 20mph in urban areas to save lives

Dan Milmo, transport correspondent

Tuesday October 16, 2007

The Guardian

Motorists will face a mandatory speed limit of 20mph in residential areas if the government accepts proposals that would reduce the annual death toll of 3,100 people on British roads.

The measure could help to cut fatalities by two-thirds to 1,000 a year, according to the influential Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety (Pacts). The current speed limit in built-up areas is 30mph but Pacts has urged the government to issue guidance to local authorities, which control speed limits on minor roads, demanding tighter restrictions.

Robert Gifford, executive director of Pacts, said the measure would save lives by reducing accidents on residential and shopping streets, while encouraging walking and cycling. According to Department for Transport statistics nine out of 10 cyclist and pedestrian casualties occur on built-up roads. "A 20mph limit in built up areas ... will help create an environment where people are not afraid to walk or cycle. And it will make a contribution to issues such as climate change and sustainability," said Mr Gifford.

The proposal is published today in a Pacts report, Beyond 2000, that calls for tough targets on road deaths and injuries. The government is aiming to reduce casualties, compared with 1994-98 numbers, by 40% by the end of the decade. It also wants the number of children killed or seriously injured cut by 50%. So far it is exceeding the child target but is lagging on the overall figure, which has prompted calls from road safety campaigners for a change of strategy.

France reduced fatalities by a third between 2001 and 2005, compared with 7% in the UK, although ministers said that the figures did not take into account the fact that Britain had focused on road safety decades earlier than many other EU countries.

The DfT said it supported 20mph zones but the decision on implementing them should be left to local authorities as in Portsmouth, where the city council is imposing a 20mph limit in residential areas. A spokesman added: "Previous research has shown that 20mph limits are only effective when vehicle speeds are already low or where additional traffic calming measures are implemented."

Edmund King, executive director of the RAC Foundation, warned that drivers would not accept a blanket speed limit in towns and cities. He said there was no doubt that 20mph speed limits would improve road safety, "but some motorists might not understand or accept them [blanket limits] and it could backfire".

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Blogger Drew said...

I like what some countries have done by allowing citizens the ability to photograph and report traffic scofflaws in the act. People might think twice about some of their dangerously idiotic moves if they knew a concerned citizen's photograph could lead to a ticket being issued. The threat of real, official traffic enforcement just isn't adequate (even if we did change the laws).

12:51 PM  
Blogger Fritz said...

I think you know that I spent my teen years in Japan. Speed limits on the equivalent of residential collector streets is generally 30 km/hr -- less than 20 mph. Arterials -- the major commercial throughways -- have a speed limit of 40 km/hr: that's 24 mph! Expressway/highway/tollway speed limits are 80 km/hr (50 mph) and speed limits are very strongly enforced.

Did you read Carlton's essay on the topic of traffic safety? Good stuff.

2:04 PM  
Blogger Jamie said...

Ed - great post.

One of the first things I did on my blog when I started was a study of the traffic laws in Columbus as regards bicycling. And I discovered something interesting, something that has changed my opinion over time of the need for bike lanes and the like.

Most of the time, the laws we have are more than adequate. The problem is the attitude of both motorists and the police. Motorists, because they'd rather drive fast than not kill someone; and the police, because they don't enforce the laws that were written to keep us safe.

People hear me ranting about the police not enforcing traffic laws, and knowing that I'm a cyclist, they assume that I'm just talking about enforcing cars' traffic laws. Not in the least! I would love to see the police actually enforcing ALL the traffic laws, including those that are broken by cyclists.

If we could get the police to go on missions to clean up our streets, and by that I certainly mean traffic-wise, I think we'd remove the need for most, if not all, of the bike improvements we see.

2:20 PM  
Blogger TTellum said...

Excellently written post Ed.

In response to jamie: Police don't enforce all the rules because they can't. There aren't enough police and there are too many rules to know and enforce. The police officers have to make the same choices the rest of us do: What rules make the most sense to that person at any given moment. And there is just as much onus on cyclists to pay attention and be safe. Other than speed violations, I see more cyclists doing illegal things much more frequently than cars. Running red lights, cycling wrong way on residential streets

I freely admit to breaking my share of traffic rules, particularly speed related. Another issue is our big vehicles pick up speed too easily. I find that going 25 mph is not an easy thing to do, both from the perspective of impatience and the challenge of paying so much attention to the speedometer and accelerator.

8:48 AM  

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