Monday, August 31, 2009

Low hanging fruit and traffic cops

This morning, as I was driving to the supermarket, just at the moment I realised that my wallet (with my driver's licence in it) was at home, I noticed that I was driving slightly over the speed limit. I slowed down, but to my horror I spotted a police patrol car pulling out of a side street and it started following me.

Naturally, instinct took over. I swore, reduced my speed to a consistent 43km/h, not moving even half a km/h over this, to prove a point convincingly that I had always been travelling at this speed and the officer must be mistaken if he/she thought I had been speeding. Various absurd thoughts rushed through my panicking head: my husband's going to be furious - we can't afford to pay a speeding ticket; I've got two kids in the car - this doesn't look good and I'm an irresponsible parent for driving at 53km/h in a 50km/h zone; should I deftly try and lose the officer on a wild goose chase, while sticking to my consistent speed of 43km/h? The kids in the car were trying to talk to me, but my powers of speech were reduced to "Sssshhhh be quiet, I can't think."

I reached an intersection, indicated to turn right (having provided over 3 seconds warning to the vehicle behind me, naturally), and swooned with relief when the police patrol car turned left. Only at that point did I realise that the officer had never switched on the sirens or lights and had never instructed me to pull over. I briefly felt unable to continue driving; such was the relief of avoiding demerit points or an unaffordable fine.

Eventually, while continuing to stick to my 43km/h (with the officer gone, this speed now only served to annoy all those behind me, but I was still in shock), I made it to the supermarket, where I remembered again that I had left my wallet (with my driver's license in it) at home.

I returned home, had a desperate coffee, and started to question my reaction.

Why did I panic like that? If I had been speeding, and had been stupid enough to leave my driver's license at home, knowing full well what is required of me by law, why was I contemplating losing the officer or trying to suggest that he/she was mistaken? I grant that I would not have had the courage to send a police officer on a wild good chase, but I have challenged officers in the past when I have felt they have pulled me over unfairly, and have never succeeded in talking them out of it (even if I knew they were wrong in their judgement). So why couldn't I just accept my fate?

And then I started to get annoyed with myself. Yes, I have had two tickets over the last 20 years. One (justified) ticket over 15 years ago for going too fast ("But officer, I'm nearly out of petrol and have to get to the petrol station in a hurry" didn't work - I was young). And one (disputable) ticket for not coming to a long enough completely stationary stop at a stop sign (it appears there is an unwritten length of time that one must stay stopped - I challenged it as far as I could, but in the end it was cheaper to just pay up). On both occasions, the guilt and shame - and deep irritation at the police - felt overwhelming... goody two-shoes that I am.

As much as I despise the combination of traffic rules and bored police, it isn't common for police in NZ to exert physical violence over people. So why do I regard police as thugs with poor judgement and limited intelligence? Why do I have absolutely no respect for police? Am I being a little unfair? (Moreover, why has my upbringing, with its heavy focus on obedience and good behaviour, made me overwhelmed with guilt when I knowingly break these tenets, even over something that is relatively minor? But that's, perhaps, a different blog.)

I read recently that $36 million was collected for speed infringements from fixed and mobile cameras and direct police tickets, that the decision to introduce newer cameras is part of an effort to reduce the road toll to less than 300 by 2010, and that more than 4.5 million tickets were issued in the last 10 years, generating at least $350 million. But that 260 people have died on the roads already this year, compared to 230 for the same period in 2008 (

I am deeply cynical whenever I read reports of police celebrating the success of a speed camera, and the significant revenue generated. Where does this revenue go? As far as I can see, it appears to be focused on elaborate advertising campaigns, rather than targeting efforts on offenders, recidivist or otherwise, who maim or kill with a degree of regularity or a lack of remorse. That is, the revenue appears to go towards purchasing more speed cameras or employing more officers, developing bigger campaigns, and focusing on minor infringements, rather than appropriately punishing those who drive in a truly irresponsible manner and who main or kill others. All this "investment" in new cameras, and the focus on pulling over people for minor infringements, clearly does nothing to address the road toll - no new argument there.

I refuse to make the leap of logic that minor traffic infringements cause accidents. They don’t, and to suggest this removes personal responsibility from the driver because it says that the accident wasn’t caused by the dangerous, negligent, and incompetent driving, but by the driver doing something that was “illegal”.

Why is it believed to be easier to focus on widespread but minor traffic violations, than it is to focus on people who drive dangerously and cause an accident?

Is it because it is easier for the police to focus on and prosecute those infringements that are easily quantifiable and revenue generating, rather than genuinely negligent driving that is harder to come by when you're cruising in a patrol car? Or is it symptomatic of the policy culture in NZ where it is believed it is easier to cast a wide net over everyone and ban everything, rather than find solutions that don’t turn people into criminals for minor indiscretions that cause no damage to people or property?

Perhaps part of the solution, along with proper punishments for dangerous driving, lies in deterrents, such as compulsory insurance, or an ACC levy system that financially penalises poor driver behaviour. The poor drivers will reap any consequence of that through their own high ACC costs and insurance premiums. The potential to be financially worse off through poor driving ability may be more of a deterrent than the prospect of being “caught” by a cop. My concern, however, is this still relies on the police making a judgement call on what is poor driving behaviour based on the current culture of widespread banning by developing a blanket rule, rather than focusing on the real problem - dangerous driving behaviour and its consequences.

Is my fear, lack of respect, and total distrust of police based on my perception that, with their focus on generating revenue, and by focusing their resources on normally obedient people, they pick the low hanging fruit and meet a revenue quota, while doing nothing about those who do actually drive dangerously?

Alas, this only means I will continue to regard the police as those with poor judgement and limited intelligence.


Lindsay said...

Just for you.

Opinionated Mummy said...

LOL! Thanks for this, Lindsay. Have now watched this so many times, I fear I might have already reached the GB limit on my broadband. But it's been worth it!