Thursday, October 15, 2009

Personal Liberty, Part deux

I was reading in our Hometown newspaper, the other day, that Our State has been quietly repealing school safety inspection rules. These rules were well-intentioned and related to important things like the depth of the spill basin on the water fountains. Apparently, enforcement of these regulations was cumbersome and the learned farmers downstate, er, legislators have been canceling the rules.

In the realm of safety, I don't believe that one can make absolute rules--if anyone reads this blog and disagrees, feel free to say so--but, the other day the geezer geniuses and moi--were debating just this idea in the context of the ban on public smoking. Apparently, even the home of Big Tobacco, Virginia has enacted a public smoking ban. I became a Bad Lawyer in the era when there were still ashtrays on elevators and the righteously offended person was the smoker who got the evil eye from some Old Broad on oxygen. We smoked on public transit, and not just cigarettes, if you know what I mean. So the world has changed and as an ex-smoker, I'm glad. I don't miss public smoking one little bit--and, yesterday morning I vigorously defended the smoking ban; let's face it, you really can't separate smokers from non-smokers in a public place. And really, smoke is carcinogenic--can we justify asbestos ceilings in designated areas of a public places?

If I haven't talked about it here, and I'm pretty sure I have--I'm an amateur road cyclist. It's something I've done on and off for many years. I wear a helmet largely because personal experience--entanglements with enraged drivers tells me that wearing a helmet might keep me off life support. A particularly bad fall in the Spring, sent me sideways into a chain linked fence head first, so I choose to wear one. Likewise, I rode a Vespa for a couple of years without a helmet--go figure? I can't defend the choice, but it is the one that I made. Even today when I ride my more urban, hybrid bicycle around Our Town I wear a baseball cap, not a helmet.

The Aussie videos made me think about the logic and rationale of helmet laws. I'm still pro-helmet--but, I hadn't really thought very deeply about the issue. Mike Rubbo, the Aussie filmmaker makes the point far more magically than I can--at the end of the second video--if you didn't watch it, please do.

Here in Your Hometown I live at a residence located midway between two flashing school zone signs that face away from my house. Directly across the street from my residence is a large parochial school on a wooded campus. The school building is set back at some distance from the curb. Generally, unless my schedule has me in court--I leave the residence at 6:45 am to drink coffee and solve the problems of the world with my Geezer pals. The traffic signals that operate at each intersection framing the city block are "flashing" instead of being fully operational. One morning recently I left later than I usually do. As I pulled on to the apron of the driveway, I looked to my left and saw the rush hour traffic lined up two abreast at the light which was fully operational. Having lived here for twenty-one years I knew I had to "insert" myself into the traffic flow or be an obstacle to this crowd of cars that uses my east-west avenue on its way into the downtown. There were no kids in the neighborhood, yet--no crossing guard at the corner, yet, no parents dropping off children, yet; and, no school buses present, yet. I accelerated out of my drive to the speed limit of 35 mph, and a police cruiser did a gnarly u-turn in front of the oncoming traffic to give me a ticket for violating school zone speed limit. The surly cop assured me as he strutted away from my car that he was "just keeping the kids safe."

One of the most aggravating things in the world for a lawyer is a traffic ticket, either one you receive or a ticket a friend or family member receives. You see, you can be Perry Mason and lose even a properly defended ticket. I have represented--for free (because how can a lawyer justify charging to defend an ordinary traffic ticket?), hundreds of family, friends, and other lawyers over the years. Generally, the local municipal courts will cut some sort of break, reduce the fine, dismiss "points" against your license, reduce charged violations, something to assuage the ticket-ee's outrage. But if you get into a dispute about the actual merits of whether the ticket should have been issued--forget it!

I fought the ticket. The ordinance provides that a person violates the school zone speed limit when driving faster than 20 mph during the time when the school zone lights are flashing and when children are present entering and exiting the building (check your local ordinance, they all say that--most traffic laws are patterned on a uniform laws enacted throughout the United States). At my "trial" which was delayed until a judge could be appointed who was not a personal friend of mine--the police officer testified to the facts, e.g. that I drove faster than 20 mph. I conceded this fact and moved for judgment on the ticket since there was no evidence or testimony that children were present.

After paying the $50 fine and court costs, I'm still pissed.

The court issued a ruling that at the hour I exceeded the 20 mph restriction I should have known that it was a school zone, because I have lived here for twenty-one years, and kids "could have been coming and going" since at the time I left my driveway it was "during the hours when kids come and go." Again, the court expressly noted the need to guarantee the paramount safety of children.

Actually, the only way my driving at 35 mph endangered children was if the police car that did a u-turn in front of the two lanes of oncoming traffic hit one a car full of them, --in the officer's zeal to ticket me.

Are children safer because I was brought to justice? Doubt it. Did my respect and appreciation for the authorities in Our Hometown decrease a little bit? Yes. Have I shared my opinion? Now, I have and I feel a little better--not so pissed.

We tolerate a lot of silliness in the name of safety. Our laws, ordinances and regulations are rife with examples of safety measures that are well-motivated, but ill-conceived, and ill-applied. Too often real solutions to real problems are dealt with on the cheap by enacting and enshrining a rule--as in the example of Sue and the bicycle helmet. We don't see the unintended consequences, we don't quantify the cost or appreciate the negative impact upon the quality of our life or liberty.

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