The exit to the parking lot at my office runs into a fairly busy road. There are 2 lanes going each way, the speed limit is 45 mph, and there is a traffic light at the parking lot to ensure we all make a safe left turn across traffic. Like most people, I generally sit there staring at the red light, waiting for it to turn green like a dog waiting for his owner to throw a tennis ball. As soon as the light turns green I usually step on the gas and mindlessly make my left hand turn across 2 lanes of traffic to get on my way home. However, this evening was a little different. Instead of making my usual mindless left hand turn I looked to the right and saw a car about 50 yards down the road traveling at a pretty healthy speed. I cautiously pulled into the intersection carefully watching the approaching car. I wasn’t too worried because I regularly see people floor it right up until the red light, so I half expected the driver to stop. I also wasn’t worried because I had my eye on the driver, I knew she was coming.
I have no idea what distracted her. She wasn’t on her cell phone but there was a passenger in the car. Maybe she was talking? Either way, it doesn’t matter. She was about to blow right through the red light. Since I saw her the whole way, my heart wasn’t racing. I gave her a polite double beep, she slammed on the brakes half way through the intersection, looked very embarrassed, and I’m sure she was much more cognizant of her surrounding for the remainder of her ride.
As I went on my way I thought, “Why didn’t she stop? There was 2 bright, shiny, red lights in front of her. Good thing I was paying attention!” Which eventually brought me to this article. What is the point of our traffic laws? I’m sure the argument for the laws is that it keeps us all safe. I found this gem of a quote from Pulitzer Prize winning author, Garry Wills in his book, A Necessary Evil:
If we all woke every morning, took out cars of uncertain performance, and tried to drive every which way, not heeding (nonexistent) signs or a right-side requirement, any speed laws or rules of precedence at crossings, we would either be crashing constantly, or would be immobilized by a fear of crashing or being crashed into
While I did not read his book, (I got the quote from this site) I’ll assume he was being serious. Crashing constantly? Why does he think this would happen? Where else in the world does anything like this happen? Why would we put ourselves at so much risk on a daily basis? By reading Wills’ quote, it sound to me like he is saying that the only reason we stop at intersections or do not travel 120 mph is because there is a law telling us not to. Do you really think this is true? There is no law telling us not to lean on a burning stove, yet we still don’t do it. As far as I know there is no law saying you have to go to the back of the line when you enter a pizza or barber shop, yet magically, we all do it, no matter how long the line is. According to Wills logic, it would follow that people would enter the store and fight to be served next. Afterall, No one likes waiting behind someone ordering meals for 5 people when all you want is one slice.
The overwhelming majority of people I’ve come across in my life are very polite. Complete strangers routinely hold doors for me if we enter the convenience store at the same time, and I do the same for them. I see people hold elevator doors for strangers all the time. There is no law that says we have to. So why would it follow that these same people would put everyone’s lives in danger when they get behind the wheel?
To a certain degree, we all make our own traffic laws anyway. I’ve lived within a few miles of Philadelphia for most of my life. There are plenty of red light, and even more stop signs. I rarely see people come to a complete stop at a stop sign, especially when there is clearly no traffic coming on the intersecting road. Why don’t I see accidents all the time? In fact, in my 29 years, I haven’t seen a single one in our residential neighborhood. I’m not saying they have never happened, I’ve just never seen it or heard of it.
I’ve lived on a 15 mph speed limit street my entire live. I’m sure there are people who strictly drive 15 mph, don’t we all hate when we’re stuck behind them? Most of drive 20-25 mph in a 15 mph zone. I rarely see anyone going 30 mph or more, and I’ve never in my life saw someone drive 60-120 mph in the neighborhood. The reason we’re willing to go 20 mph and not 60 isn’t because there is a sign that tells us not to, it is clearly because it is safer to 20 mph when you see houses and children in the area. On highways or busier roads with less pedestrians, we’re willing to go a little faster.
My parents live on a 2 way street. Cars park on both sides of the road and there is barely enough room for one car to get through, let alone traffic in both directions. Why don’t we see several head on collisions on my parents street? We’ve all been on streets like this and we all know what happens. The drivers heading toward each other can see each other coming. Usually both stop and wave the other through. Eventually one driver gives up and makes his way down the road with parked cars on each side then smiles and waves as he passes the on coming driver.
I am not aware of the history of traffic laws, but I’m sure when cars first hit the market people weren’t crashing at high speeds left and right. I have a feeling there were a few accidents, as expected, and our government overreacted, as expected. The argument was probably that it would make us all safer. I’d be willing to bet we’d be a lot safer without them. Think about when there is a storm. The speed limit might say 65 mph, but most people get over to the right and travel at lower speeds, letting the vehicles that handle the weather a little better go faster in the left lane. There might be a law of the books that tells us to do that, but if it does exist, I don’t know about it. I still take it easy in Saturn.
When the power is out and we temporarily do not have traffic lights, people tend to approach busy intersections with caution. In my experience, it doesn’t cause long backups, and there aren’t many accidents.
The point is, when we have these traffic laws we become almost mindless on the roads. The light turns green and we drive through the intersection assuming the other traffic will stop at their red light. We roll through stop signs if we know we’re going to be the first car at the intersection because we assume the second car will stop at the stop sign. Have you ever driven across the Pennsylvania Turnpike? The speed limit arbitrarily changes from 40 (in apparent construction zones with no evidence of any construction) to 55 to 65 mph. Whenever traffic comes near a cop on the side of the road, the brake light immediately come on whether the driver is speeding or not. Traffic was moving safely along, then people suddenly start hitting the brakes. That can’t be safer than traveling at a constant speed.
Trust me, my biggest gripe with the world isn’t that I have to travel 65 mph or that I have to wait at a red light when there is clearly no other traffic in sight. I’m just trying to make the point that people won’t act irrationally without the laws. Most of us probably think the purpose of traffic laws isn’t to keep us safe anyway. Most of us really believe it is a way for the state and local government to extort a few extra bucks out of us.
God Bless Freedom, Liberty, and Personal Property,
Slappy jones II