On my normal commute to work, there's a stretch of road that nearly every day has a police car standing in the median, in full visibility, always in exactly the same spot. It's obviously not a secret; it's not like they're hiding in an effort to catch as many speeders as possible. In fact, in a state (New York) that is severely hurting on cash and generally loves using speeding tickets as a way to raise money, they hand out very few tickets. In a county where our police officers amongst the highest paid in the country, it's basically the world's most expensive radar speed sign.
But what's the problem? If they're slowing traffic down and reducing the risk of accidents, maybe it's worth it. Isn't it? Well, maybe, but then again, does slowing traffic down really make driving safer? Is there something else that officer could be doing that might work better?
In this particular stretch of road, I've never seen as many accidents as I have since an officer has been regularly posted there. This may not be the case in all instances, but I personally find myself frequently worried more about spotting whether or not the car is there while driving down this strip than paying as much attention to the traffic around me as I should be. The worst issues are caused by the drivers who are either are unfamiliar with the road or just aren't paying attention and catch a glimpse of the cop car late. Without fail, the gut reaction is to overreact, slam on the brakes, and cause an unsafe condition for every car in the line behind them. Is that really safer than a group of cars traveling at roughly the same speed with their attention on the road itself?
The Michigan State Police don't think so. A recent Time Magazine article points out that the officers there favor passing speed limits that follow the 85th-percentile rule: Set the speed limit at a level that 85 percent of the traffic travels. The idea is that speed differential is a major factor in car collisions and adapting the limits to the drivers, rather than trying to force the opposite, has far better effects on reducing the rate of speed-related auto collisions. And there's data to support this.
Ok, great, but I know what you're thinking. What about the vast majority of drivers these days that simply don't pay enough attention to the road? Welcome to the source of what I'm certain is a developing brain aneurysm (well, one of the sources at least).
Distracted driving is now the leading cause of traffic accidents in America. (In full disclosure, speed is number two, but that fails to take into account the data and solutions above on the 85th-percentile rule. And don't get me wrong, I'm not against pulling over speeders. My issue lies both in the way we determine what the speed limit should be, as well as the way we try to enforce it.) In fact, if you look at the data, distracted driving is far more dangerous than drunk driving.
So what do we do about it? If posting that officer on the street in the medium is causing a less-safe condition (or, at the very least is having little to no positive effect on traffic safety), but they're being paid anyway, why not utilize them to help curb the real problem?
I have a 10 minute commute to work. In that short a period of time, I see or pass by at least 5-10 people each way that are all visibly distracted while driving. Often it's the car that's traveling slow in the left lane, swerving back between the lines after slowly drifting toward the median or into the other lane, that I eventually pass only to see the driver staring at a cell phone. I literally saw a person reading on the Long Island Expressway a few weeks back. I kid you not; book on the stearing wheel during rush hour. We also have that little law about hands-free cell phones only while driving (and now no texting and driving as well); that lasted about three months before I started seeing more police officers on their phones than anybody else on the road, and now it's about every third or fourth driver.
So how about this: For one, we get rid of the obligatory speed regulating traffic officer. Then, instead of driving around in the white Ford with the huge, dead-giveaway lights on the top, we put them in something a little more subtle. Then, we ask our officers to actually travel on the roads and use some common sense and good judgement instead of a radar gun. I'd much rather see the driver that's staring at their phone but doing the speed limit get a ticket than the person that's going a reasonable speed - albeit slightly over the speed limit - in the left lane on an uncongested road while paying complete attention to the road.
Not only would we see a reduction in the amount of distracted drivers on the roads if we all knew: a) there were unmarked cars out on the road looking for us, and b) they were actually going to be penalized for it; but - based on the volume of drivers I see every day that would get those tickets - we'd generate far more revenue than we do just handing out speeding tickets at the end of the year when the quota's due, all while actually making our roads safer.
Photo: Flickr | jpctalbot