Eric Peters: Fungible Laws

By Eric Peters

Even better – from a certain point-of-view – than a radar trap based on an under-posted speed limit is a radar trap with a changing speed limit. One that can be dumbed-down at random and with no prior notice, at the whim of the same government workers who enforce the limits and profit from that enforcement.

It’s called Variable Speed Limits and the Feds – through the Department of Transportation – are not only encouraging the states to adopt them, they are bribingthem to adopt them. Cue Dr. Evil voice – one billion dollars mulcted from taxpayers has been earmarked to mulct taxpayers a second time via “pilot” VSL programs – and at least nine states (New Jersey – naturally – but also Ohio, Wyoming, Oregon, Utah, Florida, Minnesota, Washington and Georgia) are already deploying VSL.

You may have already seen Variable Limits in action. Instead of the usual metal sign with whatever the number chosen at random happened to be at the time the sign was put up silk-screened permanently on it, an electronic sign – with a display that can be changed, literally, at the touch of a button.

At 4:30 p.m., the sign reads – as an example – 75 MPH. But at 4:33 p.m. (and just after you drove past it) the Oz who controls the sign decides the new speed limit shall be 65 MPH. Blink. Just like that, your moment-ago legal rate of travel has become illegal “speeding” – and not only are you subject to a ticket you are more likely to get a ticket because – as far as you know – you aren’t “speeding” and so why worry about that cop up ahead pointing his radar gun at you?

This gets into interesting turf.

The first is the element of intent, formerly a necessary thing to establish culpability; the idea that a person violated the law on purpose.

But in order for this to be a viable moral concept, the law has to be knowable. A law that is changeable is unknowable. It is – effectively – no law at all. It is the codified whim of whomever has the power to punish people for violating laws that are fundamentally unintelligible.

Kind of like tax law already is.  If they want your money, they’ll find some justification to take your money. It’s not about “the law.” It’s about who has power – and is willing to use it.

The second thing has to do with the way speed limits are posted – or rather, are supposed to be posted.

What’s supposed to happen before a speed limit is posted is a traffic study. Monitors set up that observe and record the free-flow speed of traffic on a given stretch of road. The posted limit is supposed to be based on the free-flow speed of 85 percent of the traffic observed – the 85th percentile speed – so that most traffic isn’t “speeding.”

The idea being that most people naturally drive at reasonable speeds and that speed limits should parallel the organic flow of traffic.

That actually is the law.

It’s called the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (“uniform” italicized to emphasize uniformity – that a thing is consistent, the same), issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation to “… establish national standards for all traffic control devices, including road markings, highway signs and traffic signals.”

States and counties and cities and towns are supposed to use the MUTCD to set speed limits in accordance with the 85th percentile rule but that runs counter to the collection of revenue via “speeding” tickets, which is a major racket for states and counties and cities and towns all across the country.

Some towns and counties and even cities – Washington, DC is one – notoriously derive a shockingly large percentage of their annual budgets via roving road taxation; they police for profit. Which you’d think would register with people as a problematic conflict of interest, as regards their interests.

It’s remarkable that it – generally – does not.

Laws that are clearly designed to separate them from their money by dint of legislatively putting eight out of ten and usually more like nine out of ten people into the category of “violator” – by dint of limits set purposely below reasonable speeds, let alone the 85th percentile speed.

This Variable Speed Limit thing will net that tenth person. It will open up a whole newrevenue stream by making it possible to issue “speeding” tickets at will to any driver – unless we all drive well below whatever the limit-for-the-moment happens to be. If the electronic sign says 65, drive 55 – in order to be within the safe zone (as far as being a target of the road tax) when Oz pushes the button and the limit drops to 55.

Now imagine Variable Speed Limits tied in with automated speed enforcement – the camera systems already in place in many states that don’t even require an armed government worker to do any work to separate you from your cash.

You unknowingly transgress the just-changed limit by 10 MPH and are duly processed by the speed camera a mile past the sign. A week or so later, you get an extortion note in the mail.

Pay up, chump.

Most of these automated ticket spewers are not subject to the once-mandatory rules of evidence, either. That is, it’s no longer the burden of the government to prove you did something but rather your burden to prove – to the satisfaction (usually, not) of an “administrative” bureaucrat that you did not.

All of this is already reality in the UK – the source waters for many of our policing for profit (and police state) woes.

As far as what can be done?

Just as it’s very sound policy to have a really good tax lawyer on retainer to deal with the IRS, you might want to acquire a really good radar detector. With speed limits changing at the whim of Oz, you might want to know where his flying monkeys might be lurking.

 

Eric Peters is the automotive columnist for the Southern Arizona News-Examiner. Visit his website for all things automotive at ericpetersautos.com.

 

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