Steel City Cowboy

Monday, March 13, 2006

Click-It or Ticket. Or Bite Me.

I'm really busy in other aspects of my life (work, creative, personal/financial), so I've had almost no time to blog. This, however, is one of the few things that gets me, um, exercised, so here it is (from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette):
Headline: State police want law to allow traffic stop just for belt violation
Subhead: Lobbying for tougher seat belt law

Well of course they do. When was the last time you wanted less power and control in your own job? They're no different. Except that they carry guns and will almost certainly not face a penalty if you die in a you-said/they-said situation. And that's the crux of the matter, really. It's not that the police are bad... they're not! I'm a big fan of law and order and the police force, both state and local. They do a very hard job for little reward. But it doesn't mean we should let the legislature give them whatever they ask for.

Remember that once the State, in the form of federal, state, or local authority has decided to arrest you (which includes being pulled over), things can go wrong if someone (you/them/both) is having a bad day. And when things go wrong, you can end up in jail, injured or even dead. To me, that says that we, as a society, should only invoke that potentiality when we really need to. For example, when someone is driving clearly too fast for prevailing traffic or road conditions, they are a danger to themselves, and more importantly to others.

Somewhere along the line, the commander of the Pennsylvania State Police forgot that his job was to enforce the law. He seems to think that his job is protecting people from every potential harm they could do to themselves. Should we let the people whose job it is to enforce the law also be the ones who propose and push for legislation? That seems like a dangerous conflict of interest to me. Well, onto the article...
HARRISBURG -- The commander of the Pennsylvania State Police wants the Legislature to approve a tougher seat belt law aimed at getting more drivers to wear the safety devices.
Col. Jeffrey Miller contends it's a way to save the lives of more motorists who are involved in crashes -- as many as 75 more lives a year, studies have shown.

See? He's just trying to save lives. As many as seventy-five more a year! I'm sure it has absolutely nothing to do with the revenue that could be produced by this sort of thing. Not saying that's his primary motive, but I'm sure the State would consider that a nice bonus!
At a hearing last week, Col. Miller told legislators that Pennsylvania has one of the weakest seat belt laws of any state.

Or, to look at it from a less-fascist perspective, one could say that Pennsylvania has one of the "strongest stances on individual liberties when it comes to giving law enforcement the ability to arrest citizens for petty infractions." I definitely like that better.
As a result, he said, only 83 percent of Pennsylvania drivers now use seat belts, compared with at least 95 percent in Washington state, which has the kind of "primary" seat belt law that Col. Miller favors.

Then I guess all of us wild, anarchist Pennsylvanians will eventually die out due to the evolutionary pressures of fiery car crashes, and the Washingtonians will inherit the Earth. How is this the state police's business?
Under current law, a state or local police officer cannot stop a vehicle if he notices that the driver or passengers aren't wearing seat belts. The officer has to have another "primary" reason for stopping the car, such as speeding, ignoring a red light, driving erratically or other offense.

And with the exception of speeding, which should really be termed "excessive speeding", I'm okay with that list of reasons to arrest someone... they all directly endanger other drivers. So, the commander is saying that, even though they can pretty much pull anyone over they care to because almost everyone in this state drives over the speed limit, they need yet another reason to pull someone over. Bullshit.
Besides the need to increase drivers' safety, Col. Miller said, a tougher seat belt law could help change attitudes of younger people. When children riding in a car see their parents not wearing seat belts, it makes the children think seat belt use isn't important, and perpetuates bad habits, he said.

So now we learn that his errant notion about protecting people from themselves isn't the end of it. The job of the state police, as he sees it, is to change the attitudes of younger people. That's their job! To change the attitudes of younger people! I think there's a position for this guy in China. They like to let the police change the attitudes of younger people, too. Okay, that's unfair. He's just trying to help.

But that's not his job.

And speaking of things that aren't his job, note that he also wants to stop the perpetuation of bad habits, too. Perhaps the police should be able to arrest people for not washing their hands after they use the bathroom, because that's like, you know, a bad habit.
Ongoing publicity about the importance of seat belt use has gradually caused belt usage to rise in Pennsylvania, even with a law that state police consider inadequate. Usage stood at 68 percent of all drivers in 1998 and rose to 83 percent in 2005, according to the state police Bureau of Patrol.

So, even though simple educational measures seem to be working, state police consider the law inadequate.
But Col. Miller wants to get it closer to Washington's rate of use.

I wonder what kind of performance incentives are in his contract? Maybe none. But I'm certain it doesn't hurt someone's prestige in professional circles if they can say things like "We upped our seat belt usage to the highest in the country!" Once again, I want to make it clear that I'm sure the commander's motivations are almost entirely good. But I want to make it equally clear that no person on the face of this planet does not consider how a certain thing will benefit their own position, even if it is otherwise for the common good.
"We could save more lives every year with a primary seat belt law," he said.

And also by a 24/7 curfew law, too. But we don't do that.
...other legislators, speaking privately, say such a tougher seat belt law could be a tough sell in Pennsylvania, where many conservatives think government shouldn't dictate every aspect of a person's life.

See that? It's conservatives who don't think the State should dictate every aspect of a person's life. The horror! How dare those conservatives. I wonder if the Post Gazette realized the inverse implication of stating the position that way?
Many drivers could become angry, legislators fear, if they get stopped by a police officer and receive a ticket for not wearing a seat belt.

Do you think?
Use of a belt should be considered a matter of personal choice, some lawmakers said.

Amen, brother.

The article then goes on to talk about possible legislation regarding cell phone use while driving, and limits on passengers in cars driven by minors, which I'm not going to bore you by continuing to address.

Suffice it to say that the police's position can be summed up by this quote by another officer, in regards to both of the aforementioned issues: "It's all about distractions -- we need to eliminate distractions."

And again, it's not about enforcing the law. It's about social engineering. No conspiracies necessary. Everyone (well, almost everyone) wants to make the world a better place. Some people, including a lot of those who have invested their lives in law enforcement, see the power of the State as an effective way to make that happen. Hi. I'm a hammer, so you must be a nail. You're not? Well, let's pretend you are anyway.

The emergent behavior of a complex system is not necessarily possible to predict by looking at its individual components. Which is another way of saying that a large group of good people who mean well, situated within a system that is supposed to be around for our benefit, can bring about a bad outcome, even when no one intended it.

We have a system in our house for the acquisition of new stuffed animals by our children. If someone gives them a new stuffed animal, unsolicited, our kids have the option of not keeping it, or of getting rid of one of their older stuffed animals. Discarded plush goes to the local community outreach program, so it's not like they're thrown into the burning barrel. Lest you think I'm a draconian father, this policy is in place only because my kids have so many stuffed animals that they could not sleep on their beds if the plush were piled there. The second part of the policy is that if they actively pursue a new stuffed animal (save money for a Build-a-Bear, beg for Puppy Surprise for Xmas, etc.), they have to give up two old ones.

Maybe we should try something like that for legislation. You want a new law? Then pick two old ones of equal scope to repeal first. Can't find any? Too bad! That means your new legislation is either so trivial that it shouldn't have been brought up in the first place, or so utterly sweeping that it should probably be a Constitutional issue anyway.

I wonder what two laws Col. Jeffrey Miller would be willing to part with to obtain his primary seat belt law?