In Favor of More Traffic Tickets

As always, it’s very likely that any ideas i come up with here are new only to me and/or have serious flaws.

In the angry northeastern coastal elite city where we live, it sometimes feels like our streets are a good barometer of the public’s goodwill for fellow humans. And right now, it feels pretty weak, on its way to being a distant memory.

Naturally i have a keen eye for this as a cyclist, but we’re not going to talk about that third rail of newspaper comments sections today. Let’s talk about the somewhat simpler interaction between cars, other cars, and pedestrians. Having said that, make no mistake, i’m still posing this as part of the War on Cars.

So needless to say, enforcing every traffic infraction is never going to happen. On highways, it mostly shouldn’t happen–speeding isn’t such a menace there and interactions are more predictable, and solely between cars. It’s on city streets where things get complicated, and where the interaction between impatient people’s most selfish impulses is becoming increasingly noticeable and increasingly dangerous.

Mostly, i’m speaking of a handful of things that have become rampant:

  • Speeding: Blazing down small side streets far above the city speed limit, gunning the engine from red light to red light, moving in confined spaces on contested, crowded streets with aggression that pays off in mere minutes at best. Minutes on your commute are not worth everyone’s safety.
  • Endangering Pedestrians: Not merely roaring through crosswalks (but definitely that), but also hooking right turns through reds and through walk signals with abandon. Pushing indignantly through clogged crosswalks against a heavily used walk signal. Honking when you don’t get your way.
  • Unpredictability: Ubers, Lyfts, cabs, and other poor, inconsiderate drivers who stop wherever they please without a moment’s notice and immediately form an obstruction, only to resume movement at an equally inconvenient time.
  • Running Red Lights: An epidemic problem here in Boston. Yesterday, while running home from work a busy intersection in the Financial District watched the light turn to ‘walk’, scores of pedestrians took a breath and looked, then proceeded, only to have white SUV sneak through seconds after the proverbial buzzer. At a running pace across a narrow street, i was less than a foot from impact, at no fault, but in great danger. And this was something that happened despite ample experience and sufficient paranoia; what happens when a family of tourists from middle America get hurt because someone needed to wait at the next light, not this one?

With modern technology and proper application of it, this feels solvable, though. There’s ample documentation of the ambivalent effectiveness of red light cameras–the extent to which the replace one bad behavior with another, and considering that the point of this is less about enforcement on any one individual than reducing the danger created by mass bad behavior, we don’t need traditional red light camera fines. But why can’t we use that technology?

Speed cameras and radars and traps get found out and enforce only localized, insincere good behavior, if you will. But the technology is sound, too, and relatively inexpensive.

It’s a matter of how we use it.

And since gone are the days where this requires an officer, requires a letter in the mail, requires a check, a stamp, a human to open the returned ticket and process this, there’s no incentive for this to be a large ticket, issued on your unluckiest day. Because we’re all apt to take the chance that today isn’t that day.

So what if these tickets were instead issued every time, with ruthless efficiency and high accuracy by vision systems and computers? Okay, but that gets expensive and onerous, doesn’t it? And what if the computers make mistakes?

So why does it have to be expensive, why can’t it just ping your EZ-Pass $10 for running a red light? Every single time. Why can’t speeding between blocks cost you $5, every single time? In the post iTunes 99c single, post-debit card, microtransaction world, this is trivial. After a handful of them pile up, won’t you stop it? And won’t we be safer? Maybe once you pile up ten of them you get a point on your license, too, because your insurance company ought to know about it, don’t you think?

While we’re at it, let’s spend all this money on mass transit.

You can argue that this is a massive invasion of privacy (and at a time when we suspect our government agencies of misusing information like this), but driving is not a right, it is a privilege, and it sure as hell does not supersede the safety of others.

Our behavior, as a society, is deteriorating, and nowhere moreso than where we have our two-ton steel killing machines operating at high speed in close proximity to each other. And while it’s unlikely that appealing to our better angels is going to have a meaningful improvement on our safety during our ever-increasingly insane commutes, can’t we at least use technology to tell the devil on our shoulders to shut up?

Requiem for a Lightweight

Here’s to my beloved little smart car. Who had to retire a bit earlier than we’d planned, the repeated pummeling of Boston’s matchless collection of potholes finally too much for his totally nonexistent suspension. Thousands of dollars away from a plausible shot at an inspection sticker, we had to part ways. While i handled it better than the loss of my dear old minivan, it wasn’t anywhere near as easy as selling my Neon to a friend (who, years later, reported it was totaled saving his sister’s life in an accident in 2012—a great car).

Maybe i didn’t take as much crap for my little car as i did for insisting on using a janky mid-1990’s Mac at an engineering school, but if i’m honest with myself, it was a similarly iconoclastic, impractical, downright foolish decision in any objective sense. i really can’t honestly recommend them to anyone in the northeast—the maintenance is brutally expensive and you’re going to break too many things. Even if i didn’t spend huge amounts on maintenance, it sure felt like something was always broken. Something underneath the car, mostly.

So why did i love the little guy so much? Only a few of you got to drive him, and fewer still enjoyed it (ahem, @swimman79), but when you’re really truly used to it, it’s really like there’s nothing between you and the road. For better and for worse, obviously. But he goes right where you put him, squeezes into ludicrous parking spots, and once you get good at it, you can use all 70hp well enough to dodge Storrow traffic invincibly and beat almost anything off the line. It just felt good to drive. Comfy warm seats on a cold day, 360˚ of sunshine on a nice day, and a nice ledge for the girl to put her feet up on on the passenger side.

Cars are deeply personal because as Americans, we spend a lot of time in them. Good times, shouting along to Underworld after a tight shutout, bad times, sitting in traffic while preoccupied with something i designed that doesn’t work right.

The little man was there the whole time, and i will miss him so.

Big shoes to fill, new car, whom i will also name Car (but probably use a lot of other names, too). Big, little shoes.