Why do traffic laws exist?

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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

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Steve
Guest
Good post. I’ve worked as a police officer and I can say that traffic enforcement and traffic accidents were the worst part of my job. Unless a driver was behaving recklessly and endangering lives, I avoided writing tickets whenever possible. When it came to handling accidents, I commonly noted the “at-fault” driver in the report for insurance purposes, but rarely issued a citation. My logic was simple. An accident results in lost time at home/work, expenses to repair vehicles, and increases in insurance premiums. Those costs were punitive enough in my mind, and I didn’t see the point in adding… Read more »
lance
Guest
Really enjoying this blog. I’ve largely lost my love for pro hockey and have found little to replace it. Grateful to be able to find new material here daily. I would like to take this one step further. Imagine all traffic rules were abolished, and also abolished were all forms of insurance. Imagine that if you nailed someone and you had to support their family while the driver was in rehab. Rather than merely inconvenient, it would be life altering. A question I often ask involves Henry Ford driving to the neighbour’s place to show off his new (black) invention.… Read more »
Neel Joshi
Guest
Sorry, but I think Wills is spot-on here. Laws don’t exist to protect you from yourself (unless you being an idiot then places a cost on the rest of society), but rather to moderate interactions between people. Your pizza example is a perfect example. You think that people “magically” get in line, even though there isn’t a law otherwise. But if there weren’t laws, what prevents me from pushing everyone out of my way? Perhaps you’d argue that everyone would fight back and so the potential of getting beaten would stop me, but what if I was in line at… Read more »
slappyjones2
Guest
Welcome to McFloogle, Neel. We really appreciate comments, especially if you disagree. I’ll try to respond to all your points… You say, “If there weren’t laws, what prevents me from pushing everyone out of my way?” Is there a law that says you cannot cut in line at a pizza store? There might be some local laws somewhere that prevents you from cutting in line, but I do not know of any. I almost never see anyone cut to the front of the line. I’m also a pretty big guy. I wasn’t good enough for the NFL, but I did… Read more »
Neel Joshi
Guest
Hi Slappy, sorry for being a no-show. I enjoy calm debates like the one we seem to be having, so I will try to check in from time to time. I’m in the middle of studying for my medical school Step 1 exams, so I haven’t had any time for blogging of late. Let’s start at the top with the pizza parlor. We have to understand that it is only a microcosm of the traffic example or of legislating national affairs. Thus, the shop owner is essentially legislating for his constituency (the patrons). When you push to the front of… Read more »
Cornwall Hoggins
Guest
So you think that the only reason people do not push to the front of a line is because they won’t get served? I cannot disagree more. I am twice the size of most people in any given room I enter and the reason I don’t push people out of my way to get what I want has nothing to do with not getting served. It is simple respect for other people. I am not alone in this matter, Everyday I see complete strangers opening doors for me, holding evelator doors open, or letting me into traffic lanes. What is… Read more »
Neel Joshi
Guest
Surely you don’t think that laws exist just to tell decent people to keep doing what they’ve been doing? Laws are there to protect decent people from those of us who are less than respectful toward others. And suddenly, if the miscreants started getting away with bad behavior (and it was proving to be advantageous), I do believe that more people than you might expect would follow suit. How about I turn up the ante? Say you’re at the hospital and your mother is sick. She’s been coughing up blood for the past hour, let’s say. You’ve just come into… Read more »
Rollo McFloogle
Guest
Neel, you seem to be begging the question that laws exist only if they are legislated by a government body. I can make it a law that I will use physical force against you if you try to steal from me. Regardless of whether or not my law is sanctioned by any government, I’m going to follow my law. No government regulation does not mean that chaos would ensue. To use the pizza parlor as an example, the owner can create his own laws as well, and he’s completely within his rights to do that. Afterall, the restaurant is his… Read more »
Cornwall Hoggins
Guest
Neel, I am enjoying this discussion and since you said you are a to-be doctor perhaps you can provide some more insight to the hospital example. My first question about the scenario you described is “Is there a law that prevents that from happening?” I am not familar with one, but I am also not a doctor so perhaps there is one you know of. Fortunately I have not spent much time in a hospital. I did have to go in for emergency surgery one time though. And they asked me some questions in the emergency room to get to… Read more »
Neel Joshi
Guest
You guys have written some great, long comments that I unfortunately can’t do justice to right now, but I did want to quickly chime in with what I’d do in that situation (assuming talking to the patient doesn’t work): simple, call security. I am not about to get myself involved in that situation any more than I have to, I don’t know his mental state, I don’t know if he’s going to be violent or not. We have a way of handling people who are in the ED that aren’t supposed to be there; I have no interest in taking… Read more »
Rollo McFloogle
Guest

Calling security is the best course of action, I think we’d all agree about that. Since it’s the hospital’s property, they would be allowed to remove anyone from the hospital that they want.

I won’t write another long comment, but if you find the time, here’s a great video by David Friedman called the Machinery of Freedom. It describes how those rules would occur without a system being set in place by a government.

Steve
Guest
I’ve been doing some thinking on this issue and came up with a few points in support of traffic laws. First is DUI. I don’t know the statistics on how effective these laws have been in deterring drunk driving, but I have to believe that the large fines and license suspensions make this offense less palatable than simply speeding. The other point is in regard to probable cause. I used to patrol an area known for its high volume of drug trafficking. After a few months I was able to familiarize myself with the “usual suspects” and hot drug spots.… Read more »
Dawie Coetzee
Guest
Just found this blog via a link someone posted elsewhere. I am inclined to agree. “The reason I stay on the right isn’t because it is illegal to drive on the left, it is because traffic is coming at me on the left.” I’ve often had the same thought. “Neel, you seem to be begging the question that laws exist only if they are legislated by a government body.” Proper use of “begging the question”! Beautiful! The problem with speed limits is that they cannot really approximate the actual safe speed in any given situation with any reasonable accuracy. Safe… Read more »
Neel Joshi
Guest
From Merriam-Webster: “law: a binding custom or practice of a community : a rule of conduct or action prescribed or formally recognized as binding or enforced by a controlling authority” I’m not begging the question so much as sticking to the definition. You and I can set up any sort of rules for ourselves, but those aren’t laws. Rollo can make it a *rule* (or, I suppose, a law for his country of one) that he will use physical force against someone who steals from him. Great, more power to him. The problem is that no one else has to… Read more »
Rollo McFloogle
Guest
Understand your lack of time to give better answers, Neel. We’ll be patient. It’s been fun debating, so it’ll be worth the wait. In the meantime, I’m going to pick one or two things that you said… “I’m not begging the question so much as sticking to the definition. You and I can set up any sort of rules for ourselves, but those aren’t laws.” By your own definition that you gave, a law is “a rule of conduct or action prescribed or formally recognized or enforced by a controlling authority.” Do I not have the right to make laws… Read more »
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