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Posted by on Mar 24, 2009 in Bicycle Culture, Safety | 28 comments

So How Did We End Up Here?

And how do we get out?

Traffic Law Enforcement.

What I am about to say will come as a bit of a shock to people under 60: “If you violate a traffic law you will be caught and prosecuted.”

And that was really true.

Prior to 1980, in Florida, if you were caught violating a traffic law, you would be locked up in a city jail and you could stay there for days unless or until you “made bond” usually a hundred dollars. If you never showed up for your “trial” then your “bond” was forfeited and your record was clear. I put these words in quotes because they were a joke. I think you get the joke.

In the unincorporated areas, the Highway Patrol was just about everywhere. Seemed as though if you were speeding 2 MPH over the speed limit, you were bound to get a ticket, so you didn’t.

It was abusive. Traffic law enforcement in Florida was abusive. It was so abusive that the Town of Minneola (pop. 800), next to Clermont in Lake County, in 1973, had 28 part-time policemen and 3 full-time policemen all paid by traffic tickets on commission. Even after 1980, Maitland and Windermere charged no property taxes because traffic tickets covered all the city’s expenses.

My how things have changed. First, there are no more city jails since their conditions were ajudged to be “unconstitutional.”  When the building was built in 1970, the Orlando City jail used to be the top two floors of the Police Department building on S. Hughey and the recreation yard was on the roof, ask if you don’t believe me. Second, cops can no longer be paid on commission, so Minneola can’t even afford to pay a single policeman and must contract with the Lake County Sheriff for police protection, as does other small cities in Orange County.

The pendulum finally swung the other way. We overcame the abuse, but did we “win”?

Now, we have virtually no traffic law enforcement. Nobody wants to do it and nobody wants to accept it. The cops don’t want to do it since perfectly fine humored people turn into absolute nasties when confronted with a traffic citation. The people don’t want to be “harrassed.”

Now we want ticket people through the mail, using cameras at intersections. Makes things easy since nobody has to hand the irate citizen a ticket. Still, the citizen complains about harassment. Suppose they were hauled off the to hoosegow, the way it was? Wow.

Yet, people call in when cars are speeding in their neighborhood. In fact, traffic law enforcement is the number one reason people call the police. Not burglary, not robbery, not murder, traffic. Seems like when “other” people violate that law we want it enforced, but we don’t want it enforced upon ourselves.

How do we break out of this without swinging the pendulum too far the other way?

28 Comments

  1. The red light cameras are a step in the right direction. The answer is, take the human (and the subjectivity) out of the equation. The camera won’t lie (and can’t be accused of lying either). This will effectively enforce the law with the minimum manpower. LEOs constantly complain about how much of a burden it is to enforce traffic laws; this will allow them to concentrate more on criminal laws.

  2. “The red light cameras are a step in the right direction.”

    Do you really like that? Next will be the speeding cameras they have in Europe.

    “take the human (and the subjectivity) out of the equation.”

    If only that was true. Fact is that radar results back in the ’70′s was legislated to be presumptively true. One could not challenge the radar and win, said the statute.

    Yet, that was abused by the police, too. If only because they knew no one could challenge them. They would say things like, “I caught you on radar doing 60.” when there was no way it could be true.

    They could make the machine say anything they wanted it to say.

    Because of that, the pendulum swung too far the other way. Fl Statutes “gives” everyone 5 MPH and since the police don’t want to be challenged, I asked and they don’t ticket a car in a 25 MPH zone unless it is doing more than 38 MPH.

    That way, the judge won’t give them trouble.

    Don’t delude yourself into thinking people are more enlightened than they used to be. That’s the same delusion that has caused the most recent economic crisis. Cops is cops, bankers is bankers and people is people and that doesn’t change.

  3. It’s hard to argue that someone who runs a red light shouldn’t get a fine. There’s no gray area. You either ran the light, or you didn’t. No need for a human to interpret the result. That’s why the cameras lend themselves well to this purpose. Speeding is slightly different, because speedometers are not exact, and environmental factors can affect radar performance.

  4. One can’t make a red light camera “say” whatever you want it to. It’s connected to the signal and the programmer (based on local government decision) determines how many seconds after the light turns red that the camera will record a violation. It’s not like somebody is sitting there going, “Hey, that’s Frank; let’s get ‘im!” Generally drivers are given a second or so of latitude by the system, so the driver who gets a yellow while in the dilemma zone won’t get a citation. If you’re more than a couple seconds past red you have no excuse.

    On the speeding side, that five MPH over the limit “grace” zone has probably combined with the 85th percentile speed method for setting speed limits to result in higher posted speeds and therefore higher motorist speed. Goes like this: traffic engineers do speed survey of a newly-widened road. The 85th percentile speed is 34 mph, so they set it at 35 mph. As time goes by, drivers realize they can go 40 mph because the cops won’t cite them for less than that. Years later, when the traffic engineers come back and do another speed study, the 85th percentile is now 39 mph, so they re-sign it at 40 mph. Before long motorists are doing 45 mph.

  5. I think over the years the “grace” zone has increased to 10mph over, too. Following motorists are abusive if you drive only 5 over. (I drive at the speed limit, it really pisses them off… way more than riding a bike!)

    Eric, the pendulum point is a good one. It seems like no matter the issue, we never seem to find the center.

  6. Found this ….

    ” … Speed cameras, long criticised as “revenue raisers”, have cut Victoria’s road toll by reducing average speeds to a record low.

    Average pedestrian fatalities of 140-150 per year in the 1980s have now fallen to 40-50 fatalities a year, according to Monash University Accident Research Centre … ”

    link: http://www.theage.com.au/news/national/cameras-a-fine-way-to-cut-speed-fatalities/2008/03/22/1205602734553.html

    Note it says pedestrian fatalities ….. it didn;t offer any stats on other data, like car crashes, etc.

    And this, for those concerned that speending cameras will become “money-raisers” for local PD ….

    “Study probes ethics of speed cameras” : http://www.ethicsinpolicing.com/article.asp?id=3692

  7. from: “Study probes ethics of speed cameras” : http://www.ethicsinpolicing.com/article.asp?id=3692

    ‘Nevertheless, he said that speed-enforcement cameras would have to follow the same lengthy public, political and legal processes which red-light cameras went through before they appeared on Knoxville streets.

    Those cameras, according to DeBusk, stemmed from “a committee of citizens and city council members … (looking) at ways to reduce speeding in neighborhoods and reduce crashes.” And DeBusk said speeding cameras “would be sort of in that same ballpark.”‘

    So the point of Red Light cameras is to reduce speed? The same way the all-way stop signs which litter the landscape are used around here?

    While I agree with the idea of using cameras in principal, reality tends to be quite different. Having been a teenager when Southern Justice finally ended (mostly because of the tourism lobby) in Florida, I have seen this sort of reality before. People driving cars with out-of-state plates were sitting ducks.

    So, I am skeptical. For one thing, if the cameras do their job effectively, then how would the city or business make any money? This has happened where revenue has fallen off, so “things” were done for sweetening, like fiddling with the yellow time, like sending out bogus tickets that look official in an attempt to identify the driver so points could be added to a license.

    I have no doubt that this could be done in a fair manner, it’s the political process I lack faith in.

  8. Keri said “I drive at the speed limit, it really pisses them off… way more than riding a bike!”

    Try driving a little under the speed limit, like 35 in a 40 zone on a multi-lane road. Or 55-60 on the freeway. In the outside lane, of course.

    I have an old, 4-cylinder car. I got in the habit of driving slower, and accelerating more gently, when fuel prices spiked.

    Most people do the same thing they would do if I were going 10-15 on my bike. They change lanes to pass.

  9. I think motorists pass me on my bike much more efficiently because even when their brains are in neutral, they recognize me as a “slow vehicle” much sooner. And I leave no ambiguity about the fact they need to change lanes to pass me. Also, people seem to think if they drive 2 feet off a car’s bumper, they can intimidate the driver into speeding up.

  10. Traffic enforcement as a revenue generator will increase over the next half decade, due to falling tax receipts. Most municipalities will be in dire straits.

  11. As to my above post, on reflection I also expect municipalities to change some local speed limits to goose the revenue.

    Perhaps we as cyclists could get some lobbying efforts going to enhance public safety now. Strike while the iron is hot!

  12. Keri said: “people seem to think if they drive 2 feet off a car’s bumper, they can intimidate the driver into speeding up.”

    I get that occasionally. Turning on the hazard flashers seems to get them to back off and/or pass.

    I’m still working on a universal signal I can use on the bike which means “Yes, I know you’re behind me, and yes, I know I’m going slower than you, and yes, I will move over when I find a safe place, and yes, in the meantime I’m riding in this position on purpose, and no, I’m not doing it just to annoy you. And I won’t be offended if you change lanes to pass. But I’d prefer you don’t gun the engine and cut it close. Thanks.”

  13. Going onto the road is scary. Sidewalk as much as I can. Celebration is a town all about cycling so I feel safe riding around there.

  14. Jeff, I’ve been told that hang gliding is dangerous and frightening. I’ve been told that paragliding is dangerous and frightening. I was given proper training in both activities and I found the experience to be rewarding and quite enjoyable.

    I’ve recently been given proper training in bicycling on the roadways (a year ago) and I’ve found the experience to be rewarding and quite enjoyable.

    I suggest that people who are afraid to cycle on our roadways are under-trained.

    One would not jump out of an aircraft, also known as parachuting, without instruction, because it is “dangerous” but thousands of people do so every day. Many do it deliberately.

    There are so many other activities that would be considered dangerous, but once one is trained, the danger becomes understanding.

  15. Red light cameras are not intended to reduce speed; I’m sure whoever wrote that was misinformed. (However, I did hear of someplace that set up a traffic signal in a neighborhood so that cars that exceeded the posted speed made the signal turn red.)

    Cities/counties that think red light cameras will generate significant revenue are mistaken. If they WORK, they won’t generate much revenue. In Apopka they went from a couple hundred citations a month when the cameras were first installed, to about 40 a month. The point isn’t to raise money, it’s to get people to behave properly.

  16. Jeff,

    Welcome to the blog! Visit http://www.floridabycycle.org and request a copy of Street Smarts. You can download a copy from the site as well. The link is on the homepage here at commuteorlando.com

    I used to be a sidewalk rider and my ride buddy and I nearly bought the farm wile doing so. Seems cars do not look for ANY traffic on the sidewalk when coming out of driveways, shopping centers, when making left or right hand turns, etc.

    I credit that booklet to my enjoyment and confidence in controlling the lane. Yes, there are those that aren’t as knowledgeable as us in regard to the laws, but I still ride in the road with CONFIDENCE!

    I regretfully have to use the sidewalk for part of my commute home. As soon as construction is finished, that will no longer be required and I can control the lane while not impeding traffic flow. I have four lane roads on my commute.

    Get the book, read it once, read it again, and read it every chance you get! Post your questions in the blog or forum and we will help guide you to confidently riding in the road where you belong!

    Cheers!

  17. The Pendulum can easily swing to far the other way.

    Mighk points out that Apopka is not making much money, but how long will that last? And how long will a company, whose goal is to make money, leave some expensive equipment in a place where it makes none?

    ChipSeal is a bit more savvy. He points out that most cities are in the hurt locker. This means that they will be looking for “free money.”

  18. Interesting article in WSJ this morning about angry driver response to traffic control cameras. Apparently the backlash increases as the cameras/detection devices are used for more than just red light runners.

    See: http://xrl.in/1vce

  19. @Brock – Excellent points made in both article and comments.

    What if governments spent the money on these cameras (speed and/or red light)? Humans these days lend themselves to no accountability, whatsoever. This would be how hard to enforce comes about.

    Imagine that the population got fed up with these systems and began to travel by bicycle. Kinda hard to do 45 in a 40 mph zone on a bike for long.

    Slower speeds by cyclists should lend towards better judgment for stopping at both changing lights and stop signs. So much for the cameras in this scenario.

    More bikes, fewer cars…..WAY Cool!

  20. Rodney, if these areas with red-light cameras had also many people on bikes, providing traffic calming, there would probably be fewer red-light violations. Everyone wins.

    There’s been a few articles on the Orlando news channel about a neighborhood with problems caused by traffic cutting through at high speed, to bypass congestion at traffic lights on the main roads. Homeowners put down their own speed bumps but had to remove them under legal pressure.

    I can’t recall the name of the neighborhood, but put a half dozen vehicular cyclists in that area during the high traffic times and the problem gets resolved pretty quickly. It’s supposed to be a quiet neighborhood and when cyclists take the lane, traffic isn’t going to consider it a bypass any longer!

    One of the non-cycling comments about red-light cameras suggests that there’s an increase of rear-end collisions when cameras are installed. I think that’s a load of malarkey. If statistics bear this out, then there’s more of a problem with tailgating motorists than there is with red-light cameras.

    I have seen reference somewhere in this wide world of interweb to locations with red-light cameras having the yellow-light duration reduced and have spoken to someone who was a “victim” of just that situation. The department responsible for the camera acknowledged in court that they had to increase the yellow-light duration by more than one second (but apparently less than two seconds) because of the increase in violators. This implies that it was too short to begin with, or it was shortened when the camera was installed.

    I’m rarely a motorist, but if I learn that a camera is going in, I’m going to time the yellow, before and after installation.

    I have a trick up my cycling jersey sleeve that might work better than the fake spray (Mythbusters: Busted!) and costs about fifty american dollars in parts. Personal mail inquiries only please. No risk to the builder, but might be some risk to me from my “friends”.

  21. ChipSeal said: “I also expect municipalities to change some local speed limits to goose the revenue.”

    In theory, the 85th percentile rule makes this unlikely. The reason for that rule is to prevent “speed traps”, setting artificially low speed limits.

    As Mighk said above, and as I’ve seen myself, posted speed limits tend to creep up due to lax enforcement.

    Elsewhere, I’ve heard that the speed limit itself doesn’t affect actual speeds all that much. Other factors, like road design, have a bigger effect. If a road “looks” fast, people will drive fast.

  22. Let me amend my statement then.

    I also expect municipalities to ignore the 85th percentile rule and change some local speed limits to goose revenue. Stricter enforcement of all traffic rules can be expected, from parking to following too close.

    After all, property tax, sales tax, state revenue sharing and excise taxes are all shrinking. You can’t expect city staff to be cut, do you?

  23. Right now cities are focusing on minor code violations… harassing businesses for signage and such. Would it be so much to ask they turn their attention to making the streets safer and more civil?

  24. ChipSeal said “I also expect municipalities to ignore the 85th percentile rule and change some local speed limits to goose revenue. Stricter enforcement of all traffic rules can be expected, from parking to following too close.”

    I don’t think it works that way. If the speed limit wasn’t set by a speed survey, then it’s not enforceable.

    And stricter enforcement is expensive. You either need more cops, or you need your limited supply of cops pulled off other tasks (like “fighting crime”). Or you need speed cameras.

  25. “I don’t think it works that way. If the speed limit wasn’t set by a speed survey, then it’s not enforceable.

    I don’t think that is true. I don’t think that judges get involved in surveys or data or anything like that. Or so that has been my experience in FL and GA.

    In CA, anything is possible and usually is.

  26. Eric said “I don’t think that judges get involved in surveys or data or anything like that. Or so that has been my experience in FL and GA. In CA, anything is possible and usually is.”

    It’s not that the judges get involved in survey data. More likely a savvy lawyer gets the ticket thrown out when the city can’t document how the speed limit was set. Or the city knows better than to give out tickets it can’t enforce.

    And yes, this is in CA. Do other states still allow speed traps? I thought that was only in Smokey and the Bandit movies. 8-)

    Since Mighk brought up the 85th percentile, I assumed Florida had the same rules as California.

    Even if not, you still need spare cops to write the tickets.

  27. If you would like to see a state-by-state comparison, here is a good article:
    http://articles.moneycentral.msn.com/Insurance/InsureYourCar/10StatesWithTheToughestTickets.aspx

    There, you can see that Florida eliminated it’s jail penalty for speeding, but 16 states still allow up to a year (!) for first offense speeders. That is in Georgia and many years ago, it was open season on ou-of-state plates, like it was here, but I think the outrageous fines and combined with jail time has boomeranged. I saw very few cars pulled over for speeding that last few times I’ve been there.

    One man’s “speed trap” is a another man’s safety device. Some people define a speed trap as a sudden limit drop, from 55 to 35, for example.

    I saw one that I thought was a bit sneaky in GA, where the town fell away, the road widened, no houses in sight, only cows for company . . . and no speed limit signs . . . anywhere.

    The reason there was no sign was because technically, you were still in the town for another 3 or 4 miles and the town speed limit was 30. The speed limit had no changed.