Saturday, November 10, 2012

What should we do about reckless driving?

On October 31st, a white SUV crashed through a red light on Commonwealth Avenue and hit local resident and shopowner Brenda Wynne, then fled, leaving her for dead in the middle of the intersection. Coincidentally, her shop, Stingray Body Art, was tattooed by a black Jeep driven recklessly out of control on Cambridge Street only a couple weeks earlier. Also, in the video, you can see that a nearby pedestrian just barely avoided the collision by a few feet.

(other recent incidents: 1 2 3 4 5more)

It's well accepted in Boston that drivers run red lights and behave outrageously at times. It's so ingrained that whenever a pedestrian signal turns to Walk, the first thing everyone does is check to see which cars are going to roll through the red light. For example, just a little while ago, I was crossing Brighton Avenue (with the Walk signal) when two vehicles decided to roll through the red light towards the crossing pedestrians (and me). They were going slowly enough to stop, but still opted to run it. One stopped for us, the other blasted through a gap between people walking. Hardly anyone took note, as this kind of behavior is a frequent occurrence.

On another evening, a few months ago, a different story played out, one which I found rather amusing. I was standing on the same corner waiting for a friend, when the driver of a BMW waiting at a red light to make a left onto Harvard Avenue decided to wait no longer. Not only that, he pulled into a parking space on the wrong side of the road, facing the wrong way, directly in front of me. Apparently, he was trying to pick-up his date, who happened to be standing next to me.

I looked back over and noticed a police car had been waiting behind him in the same lane. After a long moment, in which I believe the officer was simply shocked, the flashing lights came on and the police car pulled up behind the BMW. The driver of the BMW, playing coy, started to inch away as if nothing had happened -- until the sirens blared. I didn't stick around to see the rest of the encounter, but it was notable for being the first time I've ever seen a police officer respond to an outright moving violation in the area. Apparently, flagrantly snubbing the law directly in front of an officer is the required impetus.

So, the questions I have are these: why do we tolerate this behavior, why do the police look the other way most of the time, and is it worthwhile trying to change it?

I believe one of the reasons we tolerate reckless driving is that it is culturally accepted here: if everyone is doing it, why not? And the police don't have any moral motivation to stop something which is culturally acceptable. What about monetary incentives? Are the fines not high enough to motivate the police force to collect them? Or do they see the money go elsewhere, and have no financial motivation? Is that necessarily a bad thing? It could lead to abuse, after all. What structural changes in governance could tilt the balance in favor of traffic safety? Should we seek the use of red light cameras? Or will that also degenerate into abuse?

One notable quote from the article linked above is that there is no evidence to pursue the hit-and-run driver because there are no cameras at the scene. This is in sharp contrast to newer MassDOT roads which are extensively monitored for safety. Perhaps that would be the first step, easy and cheap. But it's not enough.

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