The Infraction Tax

Posted by Mike Merritt in Society on

800px-lapd_police_car

So today the road in front of my house was full of police.  No, they weren’t there to investigate a crime.  Well, sort of, but more in a minute.  However, the crime wasn’t one of murder or even robbery.  No, the police were there to look out for cars, and specifically, drivers in those cars.  What kind of drivers?

Those not wearing seatbelts and those using cell phones while driving, of course.

Every state in the United States has some sort of seatbelt law on the books.  According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, 28 have primary seat belt laws, where officers may fine you if you are caught not wearing a belt.  21 states have secondary seat belt laws, where you can be fined if there’s another finable offense.  Only New Hampshire has the least restrictive law, covering only people below 18.  The laws vary.  Most seem to cover only front-seat drivers/passengers.  Some also cover the rear seats.  In my state, Connecticut, you can be fined $15 for your first seatbelt offense.

Cell phone bans vary more greatly, and are split not only between phone use and text messaging, but between phone handheld use and all forms of use.  That’s then further split between those under 18, school bus drivers, and all drivers.  So, I’ll only use my state as an example here.  Connecticut restricts use of handheld phoning by all drivers, all phone use by schoolbus drivers and those under 18, and text messaging by all.  However, a number of states have yet to put any bans into law.  In Connecticut, you can be fined up to $100 for a first time cell phone use offense, which is significantly higher than the ones for seatbelt laws.  Those below 18 can have their licenses pulled for 30 days for the first time, plus a $125 fine to get it back.

Perhaps because not wearing a seatbelt affects only you, but the use of a cell phone while not paying attention could make you cause an accident?  Perhaps.

Now, it’s not that I so much have a problem with these laws.  They’re both ostensibly to keep the safety of oneself and others.  Though, I could be inclined, if I had the time, to make a libertarian argument for repeal of seatbelt laws.  The ones about cellphones, though, are much more difficult to argue against, given that they’re supposed to protect other people too.

What I have a problem with is the enforcement of these laws and, in some cases, the fines levied.

Lets face it.  Despite their supposed life-saving natures, both seatbelt laws and cell phone laws are poorly enforced, and for good reason.  It’s very difficult to see if someone is actually breaking these laws when they’re in the normal flow of traffic.  Short of pulling up besides a car and seeing someone not wearing their belt or using a phone, a police officer is not likely to see it.  Not unless someone is already swerving in their lane because they’re paying more attention to their conversation than the road.  The only other time is when an accident has already happened.

So instead of actually trying to enforce the laws day in-day out, many states have begun using (and for a long time have used) these “click-it-or-ticket” campaigns.  Part of it is education, mostly on the side of seatbelt use.  The commercials are somewhat fear-mongering in nature.  Take a look:

However, part of the campaign is routine traffic stops like happened today in front of my house.  The police will block off a section of road.  One set of officers will look for offenders, and if the officers see them, will notify another set of officers a little down the road to flag the offender down to give them a ticket.  Basically, it allows the police to write a giant set of tickets in one day.

This might be acceptable if the police were doing it every day and in multiple sections of town, but they don’t.  It’s only rarely done, probably on the course of less than once a month, and it’s usually only done in one section of town.  Obviously, the police can’t use the scenario from two sentences ago.  It’d slow down traffic everyday day for one thing.  However, for what’s ostensibly supposed to be an action of deterrent to the offender and other drivers, it doesn’t really work.  Many people still ignore the seatbelt and cell phone laws.

Is it really any wonder, then, that when these roadblocks happen people like to snark, “Guess they’re lacking in their quota for the month!”?

The other issue is the amount of the fine.  Maybe this isn’t as much the case for the cell phone fines, but on the seatbelt ones, surely it’d send a stronger message to people to buckle up if the fee was more than $15?  $15 is what I might spend on a moderately priced dinner out.  $15 is what I used to pay for my Netflix account every month before the fees went up.  $15 is one of those fees that people will pay because it’s typically cheap enough to pay on the spot, or quickly after getting home.  No one is really going to make a fuss over $15 in this day-in-age, even with the recession.

That might be the point.  I’ll use another traffic stop-related example to explain why.

A couple months ago, my sister got pulled over.  I forget the exact charge, but we all pretty much think it’d trumped up by the officer targeting a minor.  So, a few weeks ago, my sister goes to court.  She and my parents thought it would be for a full hearing, but instead they were called in to discuss the incident.  After the incident was explained by my sister, the fine, which was well over $100 in the beginning, was lowered to $35.  Needless to say, my sister decided to pay it.  Basically, it was the infraction version of a plea bargain.  Admit guilt right then and there and pay less.

After all, why not?  You’ve already been called to court once.  My sister had to take a day off from work, for example.  She’s a high school senior working part time hourly.  She had to wait in court all morning, and that’s money she could have been getting at work that was now lost.  Going to court again would likely mean the same thing on another day.  She could have fought it, but $35 is still pretty measly for a fine.  What use is there paying for $10-$15 of gas plus a day’s wages for a court case that may not come out in your favor anyway, if right now you can pay this small $35 and be done with it?

Thus the title of this entry.  It seems to me that all these small fees, one for a rarely enforced law, and the other that seems formulated to stop people going to fight the good fight, are simply no better than taxes.  People pay them because they’re small and they simply cannot be bothered to fight them, given the economic disadvantage that might come with doing so.  The fact that my state is currently facing a $1 billion deficit certainly doesn’t make me want to think differently.

That said, it certainly wouldn’t surprise me to see more traffic stops like today’s in the coming months.

No Comments







Nobody has shared their thoughts yet!