Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review, which has been on the web since 1995, is now published from Freeport, Maine. See main page for full contents

September 21, 2009


Gary Imhoff, DC Watch - There are two major types of crimes. Some acts are bad in themselves, and when we make these crimes illegal we want to catch and punish every person who commits them. Murder and robbery are bad, and we don't want "moderation" in solving those crimes. But other acts aren't bad in themselves, though they may be illegal. Driving at 35 miles per hour isn't a bad thing. It could be illegal to drive at 35, if the speed limit is 25 miles per hour, but there is no moral turpitude involved in driving at 35 mph. Speed limits are practical matters; if they are set reasonably in order to ensure public safety, they are socially useful. But even then, we want speed limits to be enforced only as much as necessary in order keep traffic in general traveling at a safe speed. We don't want over-enforcement both because we know that speed limits are to a large extent arbitrary and because there is no moral failing involved.

Towns that set their speed limits too low for actual driving conditions, and then enforce those speed limits strictly without regard for how enforcement has an actual impact on safety, earn our disapproval. The same goes for towns that install red light cameras at places where the red lights may be unexpected or are difficult to see until the last minute, or that install red light cameras and then shorten the time for yellow lights. An even clearer example of laws that create crimes that have no moral component is parking laws. A town that makes its parking regulations and parking signs and notices confusing and difficult to obey, and then blanketly issues parking tickets, isn't just enforcing the law; it is simply manipulating laws with the purpose of issuing tickets.

In the past, these problems have usually been associated with small towns that use traffic laws as a desperate money-raising opportunity, and these towns have been scorned as backwaters to be avoided. Now, some big-city mayors and councils have decided that they, too, can use traffic laws as revenue raisers, that there is no shame in turning their cities into speed traps, or red-light traps, or parking traps. Washington is one of those big cities. Keep it up, and we'll be like those small towns in the '50's and '60's that were on the "to be avoided list": if you're going north or south on the east coast, and passing by Washington, stay on the beltway and keep out of downtown.


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