Traffic laws are nearly precise metaphors for freedom. Driving without these laws would be unsafe – anarchy. But too many traffic laws begin to impinge on our personal liberties.
In many real ways, driving is an exercise in freedom. One of the last things taken away from us in advanced age is our privilege to drive – our mobility. Anyone who’s had to tell an aged parent or loved one that they can no longer get behind the wheel of a car knows what I’m talking about. Our personal liberty to drive a car has a broader context than simply personal liberty. There are other considerations. But those other considerations are equally important.
I have said before that if I were king for a day my very first edict would be to abolish all speed limit laws and all speed traps created to catch innocent people in the exercise of their personal liberty. Instead of speed limit laws, law enforcement would have broad power to enforce “reckless driving.” That means no more speed traps. No more creating criminals out of innocent people. That means law enforcement is out on the road as part of the regular flow of traffic.
I’m sure some study somewhere proves me wrong. I’m sure some professor at some university has studied this issue and determined beyond reasonable doubt that speed limits and speed traps are more effective at reducing traffic accidents and fatalities than laws against reckless driving. But I haven’t seen them.
Regardless, our whole culture of traffic laws is upside down. A case a few months ago out of Missouri is just one example. A man in Ellisville, Missouri, noticed a speed trap one day and proceeded to warn oncoming traffic by flashing his lights at them. The man, quite literally, was telling oncoming traffic to slow down – the exact reason used by law enforcement to justify speed traps. For his trouble, the man was cited for issuing this warning to other drivers.
The Ellisville case made it to a federal district court judge who ruled in favor of the man. Law enforcement argued “that flashing headlamps might be illegal interference with a police investigation” but the court argued with clarity that “the expressive conduct at issue [the man flashing his lights] sends a message to bring one’s driving in conformity with the law.”
Ultimately, the court ruled that the man’s First Amendment rights of free speech had been violated and that, in holding that opinion, “there appears to be no immediate danger to public safety health or welfare through the Plaintiff’s flashing his headlamps.”
In Frisco, Texas, another man saw a speed trap and, in response, created a hand-made sign that read “police ahead” and stood out on the median strip to warn oncoming drivers. Police began to wonder what was going on when several cars passed by waving at them. Police soon found the man and cited him for an arcane law about waving homemade signs off of private property for purposes of advertising.
And you can see my point: If police have to violate someone’s First Amendment rights or cite someone under a law that minimally has anything to do with the matter at hand, our culture of traffic laws isn’t what it should be.
In dealing with such an obvious cornerstone of freedom – our personal mobility – we should be more concerned about true public safety and less concerned with creating criminals out of innocent citizens.
For Sutherland Institute, I’m Paul Mero. Thanks for listening.
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