I’ve had people criticize my criticism of “speeding” tickets. They say I’m encouraging or at least defending wrongful, dangerous activity. But I’d like to ask them a question. If “speeding” is indeed such a thing – not just illegal, but genuinely anti-social in the way that, say, kicking a dog or stealing something or even worse than that surely is – how come cops so routinely give people a break?
Think about it for a minute. It has probably happened to you.
One day, you’re out driving. You are traveling faster than the posted speed limit – as almost all of us do every time we are out driving. This time, it’s your turn to be the first car past the radar trap a cop just set up around the next curve. Red and blue flashing lights in your rearview. It’s time to get out your wallet – and not just to get your driver’s license, either.
The cop comes over – hopefully without his gun drawn and without Tazering you. He takes your license and paperwork, asks if you know how fast you were going. (If you are smart you will be polite but noncommittal at this point). But today is your “lucky” day. The cop explains that even though you were doing 62 in a 45, he is going to cut you a break - and knock it down to 54 so that your fine is lower and your DMV points fewer.
Here’s where it gets weird.
No, wait. It already is weird.
A cop – a sworn enforcer of the law – is openly reducing the charge against you and therefore, the punishment as well – even though he believes he just caught you red handed doing the Full Monte.
Imagine you have just been arrested for shoplifting something. The cop has the video of you stuffing a Wii into your pants. But he says, “I’m going to cut you a break and only charge you with disorderly conduct. It’s a lower fine and you won’t have a record. Just sign here, pay this – and don’t do it again, ok?”
Apply the same test to any other offense – any other real offense, that is.
It’s as useful for getting at the truth of the situation as turpentine gets rid of road goo on your fender. It reveals – in all its liver-spotted, cellulite marbled ugliness – the banana republic-style corruption at the core of American traffic law. If the cops actually believed you had just done something genuinely dangerous to yourself or to other motorists, do you really think he would cut you a break?
But we – most of us – rarely have this epiphany. Instead, we are reflexively grateful to the cop who “cuts us a break” – even though we’re still stuck paying a fine and facing DMV points on our record that will very likely result in us paying more for our car insurance policy.
This is genius.
You manufacture Fake Crime – stuff everyone is going to do anyway because it’s almost impossible not to do it. Expecting people not to “speed” is like expecting them to shuffle instead of walk. People are going to do it anyway.
This means you’ve effectively criminalized normal, reasonable behavior. But you know people instinctively resent being jacked-up over what they sense at the gut level to be not just nonsense but unjust nonsense.
And, so, you give them a break.
You make the victim feel as though he’s being treated with special consideration. And more subtly, the cop who gives you a break becomes a sympathetic figure instead of the asshole who has just handed you a piece of paper that will force you to hand over a large wad of cash to your least favorite compulsory charity. It’s the same psychology that did its number on Patty Hearst. Remember Patty Hearst? The newspaper heiress? She was dragooned from her apartment by a group of thugs who styled themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army. In no time at all, they turned Patty’s head around. By “nice treatment” – giving her a break – she became convinced the thugs who kidnapped her at gunpoint were in fact her allies.
She ended up helping them rob a bank at gunpoint.
The point, is if “speeding” tickets and other such traffic offenses really were dangerous and anti-social you would never in a million years hear about a cop giving someone a break. The proverbial book would be thrown, full force – every time. The fact that it is not tells you all you need to know about the true nature of the system.
It is a con – and we are co-conspirators, just like Patty Hearst was.
Maybe someday, we’ll be deprogrammed, too.