Thursday, May 08, 2008

Law in Wonderland: one of the more messed-up things I've seen recently.

The perverse incentives in traffic law have reached the point where local authorities actually want you to break the law. See below for the story -- some jurisdictions are turning off red-light cameras, even though they allegedly produce a public safety benefit, because motorists respond too well to them, reducing the public revenue from tickets (i.e. the cameras actually deter violations of law).

To me, it seems like there's something really twisted in this. The jurisdictions are making and enforcing their traffic laws in the utmost bad faith. We ought to object to this sort of behavior for the same reason we object to entrapment: the state ought to be attempting to minimize violations of law (subject to occasional extreme benefit from the violation) rather than attempting to reach an equilibrium level of violation and fine revenue. Also, it reveals an inappropriate lack of concern with public safety -- if traffic enforcement is justified on the ground that it saves lives, then increasingly efficacious enforcement -- especially cheap enforcement through deterrence -- ought to be maintained.

Also, as a source of revenue, traffic tickets seem to be a really terrible substitute for taxes, for two reasons. First they are inefficient -- they require the services of cops and courts to enforce, and they impose extra costs on the payors (insurance premiums, etc.) Second, they are not progressive -- there aren't higher traffic tickets for higher income groups, etc.

Story:
Red light cameras too good for their own good?

Excerpts:
Last week, Dallas officials reviewed the numbers and decided that a quarter of the cameras they had installed to catch motorists running red lights were too effective. So they shut them down.

They are not alone. Faced with data showing that drivers pay attention to cameras at intersections — resulting in fewer ticketable violations and ever-shrinking revenue from fines — municipalities across the country are reconsidering red light cameras, which often work too well.
* * *
In Bolingbrook, Ill., meanwhile, officials ended their red light camera program after statistics showed a 40 percent drop in ticketable offenses.


The article also points to a possibly legitimate safety motive (reducing rear-end collisions at stoplights), and that's fine. But cities must not remove effective public safety enforcement measures solely because they are reducing fine revenue.

(Imagine if this principle were generalized! The FBI might not break up Mafia groups because it gets more revenue from keeping them in business by doing occasional busts and seizing lots of assets!)

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