Americans love driving and this impacted the work of police

A country built around driving leads to profound effects on what police do:

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It is not an exaggeration to say that police power in the United States is built around the unique conditions created by car culture, in which virtually everyone is breaking the law all the time—with occasionally severe consequences. In her book Policing the Open Road, the legal scholar Sarah Seo points out that mass car ownership prompted a wholesale reinterpretation of the Fourth Amendment, which protects us against search and seizure. Or it did, until we all started driving everywhere.

Police often abuse this authority to perform “pretextual stops” hoping to find guns or drugs, knowing that trivial traffic violations give them the power to search citizens at will. Officers have at times undertaken this constitutional sleight of hand with explicit federal endorsement, deputized as foot soldiers in the war on drugs. In one of the most notorious examples, police in Arizona used traffic stops to enforce federal immigration law.

For Black drivers, pretextual traffic stops—per Jay-Z, “doing 55 in a 54”—are a routine occurrence and the foremost symbol of racial profiling in this country. For many police departments, these violations are used to fill government coffers and prompt devastating cycles of fines, debt, suspended driver’s licenses, and jail time. Black drivers are 20 percent more likely to be stopped, according to a study last year, and almost twice as likely to be searched.

While the article is about speeding, there are numerous additional areas where police work intersects with driving: stops for all sorts of reasons (as noted above), dealing with crashes or road conditions, escorting important people, and police driving the same roads as everyone else in order to address an issue at a particular location.

In many parts of the United States, it would be hard to imagine police without a vehicle or not interacting with vehicles regularly. Even the community policing idea where police spend lots of time in the same community and at the pedestrian level may still require using a vehicle to travel back and forth or to address particular issues they encounter. The sight of police on foot, horse, or bicycle in certain settings may be unusual to many who are used to the cars and flashing lights.

The same kind of methods proposed to limit traffic fatalities (also discussed in this article) or to promote the use of other modes of transportation could also have the effect of reducing the need for police to patrol or drive on roadways. But, reducing the American dependence on or love for driving is a sizable task.

Driving down, traffic deaths up in Illinois and across the US

Usually traffic deaths decrease when people drive less. This has not been the case in Illinois or the United States as a whole in the last year:

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About 1,166 people died in motor vehicle crashes in Illinois in 2020, a nearly 16% increase over 2019, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation. That’s a provisional number, said IDOT spokesperson Guy Tridgell, since it takes the state agency 12-18 months to finalize annual data…

Speeding and traffic fatalities typically go down during recessions, according to an October study published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In Illinois, for example, deaths dipped sharply in 2008 and 2009 according to state data, though they’ve been up slightly since…

About 28,190 people died in crashes from January to September 2020, more than a thousand more fatalities than in the same period in 2019, the federal agency estimated. A full annual report is expected to be released in the late fall…

What’s more, traffic deaths nationally were down from March to May, but jumped back up after states began reopening in June, according to the agency’s estimates.

This suggests safety is not solely a function of the number of miles driven or trips taken. How people drive and the conditions matter quite a bit. In this case, the article hints at multiple possible reasons for this jump. This includes speeding, more impaired drivers, and less seat belt use among those hurt.

I wonder if there are several other factors at play. With many public and private locations shut down, did driving become an even more important escape for some Americans? With limited places to go, driving and doing so dangerously could be a kind of release not available elsewhere.

Second, is there a safety feature to a certain level of traffic? With fewer people out, does this encourage riskier driving compared to having to navigate more vehicles on the road? Too many cars likely leads to more accidents but what about too few compared to typical conditions?

Keeping track of speeding in E-Z Pass lanes – but not enforcing it?

Some states monitor speeding through open road tolling:

Several states, including New York, Maryland and Pennsylvania, say they monitor speeds through the fast pass toll lanes and will suspend your E-Z Pass for multiple speeding violations.

In all, five of the 15 E-Z Pass states have some kind of rules on the books for breaking the speed limit in the convenience lanes.

This makes some sense. Yet, the states don’t consistently enforce these rules. Here are two examples:

“You can lose your E-Z Pass privileges if you speed through E-Z Pass lanes,” says Dan Weiller, director of communications for the New York State Thruway Authority. “You get a couple of warnings. We don’t have the power to give a ticket, but we do have to power to revoke your E-Z Pass, which we will.”…

In Pennsylvania, a warning usually suffices for lead-footed drivers, says Carl DeFebo, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission. “If a collector spots an E-Z Pass customer blasting through at a high rate of speed, they’ll get a license plate,” he says. “We do have the ability to send a warning letter to the customer, and that has proven effective. If the customer doesn’t heed the warning we have the ability to suspend their E-Z Pass privileges but we haven’t done that recently.”

My interpretation: states have had the ability to monitor speeding at these open toll lanes. Theoretically, they could even calculate the time it takes to drive between points and could track speeding on the open highway. But, widely ticketing people in these open toll lanes would be unpopular and seen as heavy-handed so they don’t crack down on everyone.

I want to know: is this strategy effective? Does the threat of a ticket (whether it is on posted signs before the tolls or is in the user agreement) actually slow people down? If this is really a safety issue, shouldn’t this be enforced consistently? It sounds like the speeding on Chicago highways that takes place among most drivers but the state won’t raise the 55 mph speed limit near Chicago.

An example of fun solutions to social problems: speed camera lottery

There are lots of social problems where it is hard to motivate individuals to support efforts to battle the problems or to change their individual behavior. But what if individuals could have a chance to benefit from the measures beyond simply the abstract “you’re helping society”? Some thinkers developed a lottery that might improve people’s views of speed cameras and reduced the number of speeding people on the road:

“Can we get more people to obey the speed limit by making it fun to do?” That’s a question Volkswagen recently posed in a public contest — and the winning entry was the Speed Camera Lottery, conceived by Kevin Richardson of San Francisco. Richardson’s idea, quite simply, is to build a better speed trap. Strategically placed traffic cameras will photograph all passing cars. Drivers exceeding the speed limit are sent tickets, while those obeying it are pooled into a lottery funded by the fines. Every now and then a randomly selected winner is sent a check.

The speed-limit contest was part of the Fun Theory, a program designed by Swedish advertising firm DDB Stockholm to make “seemingly baleful social challenges — environmental protection, speed-limit adherence, boosting public transportation ridership — enjoyable,” according to the Wheels blog of the New York Times. Other transportation-related innovations included the Wiki Traffic Light, which tries to get people to stop on red by fixing a screen that displays interesting facts, and the Piano Stairs, which nudges subway riders off escalators and onto the stairs by converting the steps into piano keys — ala the “Heart and Soul” scene from “Big.”

A demo of the Speed Camera Lottery enacted in Stockholm seems to have been a success. In collaboration with the Swedish National Society for Road Safety, Volkswagen installed a speed camera that showed drivers their speed. Over a three-day period the camera snapped shots of 24,857 cars. The average speed before the test was 32 kilometers an hour. During the test that figure dropped to 25 k.p.h. — a 22 percent reduction in speed.

My first thought upon reading this was that it is a clever way to deal with the issue of speeding. But, this could get complicated quickly. Where exactly is the trade-off point where people need to see that enough drivers who obey the law are benefiting versus the number of people who are receiving tickets? Such cameras have been particularly detested in the United Kingdom and the United States – would a program like this be enough to overcome these attitudes? More broadly, should people be rewarded for following laws or guidelines?

In general, we need more creative thinking like this. People generally don’t like to be told what to do, particularly if they feel that they are being scolded or that the state is just out to get them (or raise revenue). But if people can be convinced that they could tangibly benefit from following the law or fighting a particular social problem, perhaps more people would jump on board.

A new traffic control device: painting a picture of a child on the road

The battle to control speeders has a new weapon:

On Tuesday, the town [West Vancouver, Canada] unveiled a new way to persuade motorists to ease off the gas pedal in the vicinity of the École Pauline Johnson Elementary School: a 2-D image of a child playing, creating the illusion that the approaching driver will soon blast into a child.

According to Discover magazine, the pavement painting appears to rise up as the driver gets closer to it, reaching full 3-D realism at around 100 feet: “Its designers created the image to give drivers who travel at the street’s recommended 18 miles per hour (30 km per hour) enough time to stop before hitting Pavement Patty — acknowledging the spectacle before they continue to safely roll over her.”

I would be very curious to know how effective this is. While the article suggests that drivers may then be more prone to hit real children, drivers might also just eventually tune out the painting, much as they do with traffic signs.

Another school of thought would suggest measures like this painting are missing the point. What really should change are the structure and design of streets. If you want people to drive more safely, make roads narrower and include parked cars on both sides. Or, one could go as far as European traffic engineer Hans Monderman who advocated removing all traffic signs – since drivers ignore them much of the time anyway, having no signs might force them to pay more attention.