Thoughts about my traffic travails; or denial ain’t just a river in Egypt

Getting a ticketI’m still brooding about the craptacular implosion of my 36 year run without any driving violations.  This is not something I take lightly.  It disturbs me on two levels.

The first level is my self-confidence. By the time you reach the middle of middle age, shading into the dark side of middle age, you’re reasonably confident that you’ve mastered life’s basic skills. You can shop, prepare yourself some basic meals, get your laundry done, pay your bills . . . and drive your car.

Now, when I get on the road, I recoil from every chimerical possibility of accident or ticket. Contrary to the police’s claim about the intended purposes behind the sting and the red light camera, I am not a safer driver now than I was before, unless you count as safe a driver who constantly second guesses herself and is as skittish as long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.

The last time I felt this bad as a driver was when I started driving again after an accident that saw the car in which I was a passenger plummet off an overpass and land upside down 20 feet below. This time, I’m not scared of the car; I’m scared of everything around the car. I do not think this is, or should be, the law’s purpose.

My theory about the law’s purpose gets me to my second point, which is that I feel that both the tickets violated a sort of unspoken social contract I’ve always felt as a driver with the rules of the road. Warning: I strongly urge readers in law enforcement to cover their eyes at this point. What I’m going to say will not make them happy.

To my way of thinking, both my traffic violations involved slightly different violations of the social contract. The purpose behind traffic regulations is to protect people and property, while keeping traffic moving as efficiently as possible. I wholeheartedly approve of this purpose. What regulations are not meant to be is a source of revenue for cash strapped states and municipalities or some sort of lesson created in false, laboratory-like circumstances. Increasingly, though, that’s what they’re becoming.

The cross walk sting I got the other day seems to me to violate the spirit of the law, as well as the letter, insofar as the law is aimed at protecting people and property. If you read the statute (Calif. Vehicle Code sec. 21950), what comes through loud and clear is that it relies heavily on common sense, situational awareness, and individual discretion:

(a) The driver of a vehicle shall yield the right-of-way to a pedestrian crossing the roadway within any marked crosswalk or within any unmarked crosswalk at an intersection, except as otherwise provided in this chapter.

(b) This section does not relieve a pedestrian from the duty of using due care for his or her safety. No pedestrian may suddenly leave a curb or other place of safety and walk or run into the path of a vehicle that is so close as to constitute an immediate hazard. No pedestrian may unnecessarily stop or delay traffic while in a marked or unmarked crosswalk.

(c) The driver of a vehicle approaching a pedestrian within any marked or unmarked crosswalk shall exercise all due care and shall reduce the speed of the vehicle or take any other action relating to the operation of the vehicle as necessary to safeguard the safety of the pedestrian.

As you can see, the statute states no specifics. That is, it doesn’t say that, when a driver is 100 feet from a marked cross walk, if he sees a pedestrian within 3 feet or less of the cross walk, or in the cross walk itself, he must immediately apply the brake and remain stopped until the pedestrian is more than 3 feet from the cross walk. It also doesn’t express any specific times within which a driver must act (e.g., within 3 seconds of having a clear view of any pedestrian less than 3 feet away from the cross walk, etc.).

Instead, the statute says that it’s the driver’s responsibility to protect the pedestrian. I agree. It says, despite the driver’s primary obligation to protect the pedestrian, the pedestrian cannot behave irresponsibly. I agree. And finally, it says that the driver has to exercise “due care” and must reduce speed “or take any other action relating to the operation of the vehicle as necessary to safeguard the safety of the pedestrian.” It’s the driver’s decision how to act in a specific situation. And unless the driver is a psychopath, his decision will be to do everything possible to avoid that pedestrian.

I know my car, I know my intersection, and I know the way normal adult pedestrians behave. (When it comes to children, I slow to 5 miles an hour if they’re on a side walk within 20 feet of my car whether or not they’re at a cross walk. Like drunks, their behavior is totally random, and “due care” requires extraordinary caution.) Normal adults stop at the curb, look both ways and, if they see a driver coming, carefully check the car out before leaning their bodies forward into the intersection.

When I am about 100 feet from an intersection and see an adult pedestrian engage in normal behavior, I take my foot off the gas to reduce speed and, if necessary, gently touch the brake while I assess the situation. If it’s clear the pedestrian’s going for it, I stop. Because I’m familiar with my car, I know that this “reduce speed, observe, and stop if needed” technique will invariably have me stopped at least 30 feet from the pedestrian.

Normal pedestrians don’t observe a car coming down the road and, when it’s 100 feet away, suddenly step off the curb into the street without any other body “pedestrian body language.” And they don’t, as the driver draws near, but is still about 60 feet away and not accelerating, hop like a bunny back on the curb. In other words, all of the ordinary signals were wrong. That’s why I didn’t instantly stop. Or — until I see the video and confirm that this is how things really played out — that’s the story I’m telling myself for why I didn’t stop.

Even if my perception of the event is somewhat off, the sting’s scenario wasn’t a real driving scenario. It applied an objective test (must brake and stop within “X” number of feet of the supposed pedestrian) to an extremely subjective event, one that depends on the by-play between both driver and pedestrian, and on the driver’s knowledge of the terrain and her car.

In its effort to apply an objective test to a situation that his subjective both in law and in fact, this sting differed a great deal from other police traffic activity I’ve seen. Alcohol check points depend subjective things (smelling of booze, being unstable), clinched by an objective breathalyzer test (although even that is dependent on the size of the person and the way they metabolize alcohol). Speed traps depend on your speed, measured by a relatively proven technology. Traps at school bus stops use real school buses that really stop, and ticket people who engage in a behavior that’s highly objective — they drive by the stop. None of these stings operate within the shade of gray of an arbitrary distance for action, with that action dependent on the enticing behavior of an actor who may or may not behave in a way that would demonstrate to a real driver in real-time that the person intends to enter a cross walk.

The right light camera is just as bad in terms of applying an objective standard to a subjective situation. I’m not talking about driving straight through an intersection. I’m talking about right turns on yellow.

Let me begin by saying that I’m an almost excessively law-abiding citizen. I always use my cruise control so I don’t speed. If a sign says “no left turn,” I obey it. I don’t litter. I’d never dream of shoplifting and didn’t even do the stupid thing of trying it when I was young. I don’t use illicit drugs.

When it comes to yellow lights, if I’m heading straight, and if I’m not going to get rear ended by doing so, I stop for them. Doing that isn’t just because of the written rules. It’s because, in those circumstances, the law’s purpose is manifest: stopping decreases the chance of a collision, as laggards try to clear the intersection before the light changes red or eager bunnies try to start driving before their light changes green.

Making a right turn on a yellow, even one that’s shading into red, is a different proposition. At a large intersection, unless the traffic coming from the left uses warp speed, there is no possibility of a collision. And if I’ve been paying attention, and I know that there are no pedestrians either ahead of me or to the right, that turn cannot put anybody at risk. Moreover, if I’ve gotten into my turn by the time the light changes, I’m heading in the direction of the green light and I’m not running anything.

Again, as with the pedestrian situation, I’m applying my discretion to a situation because I know absolutely that there is no danger attached to what I’m doing. I’m also counting on the fact that I can get away with it. It’s a neat, quick little maneuver that a police officer probably wouldn’t catch because, in my opinion, it’s safe and, if I finish angling my turn by the time the light changes, I’m traveling with not against the green light.

The problem with the red light camera is that it has no discretion. It sits there and churns out tickets despite the fact that the driver is engaged in a manifestly risk-free activity and, moreover, is moving with the traffic, not against it by the time the light changes.

The Vehicle Code, surprisingly for a government code, vests a lot of discretion in drivers. They’re supposed to calculate whether activities are safe or dangerous, and behave reasonably under such circumstances. Even some of the ostensibly black and white things aren’t really. For example, about that speed limit: yes, normally you’ll get nailed for exceeding the speed limit, but officers actually have discretion. If driving at the posted speed is unsafe, whether because traffic should move more slowly or is, in fact, moving much more quickly, you’ll still get ticketed.

So what I’m complaining about here are policing activities — cross walk stings and red light cameras — that violate the spirit of the law by imposing arbitrary constraints on situations that vest the driver with discretion. And worse, with the cross walk sting, the police try to imply objective standards (braking within X number of feet) to a situation that is inherently subjective.

This might be my last word on the subject unless I brood some more.