Entitlement or Why do I still have my licence?

Last week I ran a red light. I was tired. I thought it would stay yellow. I wanted to go home.

In short, I was stupid.

As I sailed through I saw the flash of a camera in the buildings in front of me.

Today I got a warning letter. I’m happy enough about that. Fine’s are expensive and, whilst nothing but a hobby that circumstances prevent me indulging in too much, I do like my motorcycle. Since I am still on P plates, any offense would have involved a suspension.

But objectively, and in the parlance of the internet, WTF?

As part of the roll out of the new safety cameras, the RTA is committed to educating the public and assisting people to comply with the requirements. Our strategy involves applying a short grace period before infringements are issued.

A grace period just in case people didn’t know that a red light means “stop”? If they struggled with that, I really don’t think they should be on the road. Or did they mean a short period so people could realise that “red means stop and we mean it for reals this time and in this place”? Given that running a red light is illegal, and highly dangerous, in all circumstances, why should there be a grace period for a given location that happens to gain a means of enforcement? The “grace period” strikes me as something that will merely be incorporated into behavior – after all, it’s widely believed that there is a 10% buffer above the speed limit (bar school zones), and the average speed by my reckoning on this 60 KPH stretch of road is 66 KPH – dropping to a perfect 40 in a school zone in school hours – so as a strategy it seems quite ineffective.

But I’ll be fair. The political backlash would be strong and virulent. There would be cries of Draconian punishments, and accusations of revenue raising. The RTA and the government obviously have found that  a soft touch to ease in enforcement is the best political option. It worked for random breath testing.

But the wider implications are disheartening. This is a very long established traffic rule with very strong and obvious rationales and benefits, but it still struggles against the sense that bending and breaking the rules is an entitlement and the belief that unsafe driving is something other people do (preferably “hoons” of another ethnicity). Imagine what pressures are arranged against measures that, whilst justified, are not as established in law and harder to explain? Imagine what is arranged against the sense of entitlement for massively subsidised roads (both financially and otherwise), cheap petrol (compared to it’s true costs) and that scarce road space should be rationed by queueing (AKA congestion) rather than pricing?

And that’s before we get to privately appropriated rents, over allocated water entitlements, polluting, poorly directed film subsidies and so on.

How on earth does any policy ever get done?

And in a fair world, I’d be properly punished, if not banned from the road.

About Richard Tsukamasa Green

Richard Tsukamasa Green is an economist. Public employment means he can't post on policy much anymore. Also found at @RHTGreen on twitter.
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Nicholas Gruen
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
11 years ago

The reason you were not fined nor had your drivers licence suspended was that you were driving the Troppo Ducati which has special privileges.

But seriously folks, while it’s irritating intellectually, there is some wisdom in this – not just political cowardice (though no doubt there’s some of that). Trying not to get people too upset is a good overarching goal of public policy because us humangoes are much more irrational and nasty when we’re angry.

Lot’s of nasty things get nastier and nastier when people rehearse formal structures of authority and insist that others not buck them. But the tradition of civil disobedience relies to some extent on the ability to disrupt that – and often civil disobedience is seriously irritating (having you wait in traffic and imposing costs on all sorts of people in an arbitrary fashion). And the tradition of civil disobedience helps get rid of some pretty bad things (and sadly, some pretty good things – I recall truckies surrounding Parliament House because they had decided that efficient road pricing was an incursion on their human rights).

Ted H
Ted H
11 years ago

In my salad days, I had my (car) driving license suspended whilst on my P-plates for a series of driving offenses. I accepted it with relative grace, particularly as suspension from driving for six months seemed a mild irritant compared to something, say, on a criminal record; further because I was surprised harsher action hadn’t happened sooner.

Indeed, for many of the offenses I was caught not by machine, but by a Highway Patrol officer who would pull me over. Usually I was explicit in my discussions with them, admitting “I was being a dickhead. I thought I would get away with it” or sometimes a little coy by admitting “I was running late/was tired/ etc. and I was distracted, but I accept I was being irresponsible”.

If anything, I deserved a harsher punishment for what could be perceived as a cynical and strategic defence. But on a couple of occasions I was let off free-of-charge, or had my offense downgraded. One time, the officer said something to the effect of “Well, I can see you know you did the wrong thing. Although you were doing 85 in a 60 zone, you weren’t driving like a Hoon so I’m only going to fine you for doing 70 in a 60 zone – smaller fine, and less points off your license”. (This almost implies that the officer believed the laws were designed to catch a particular type of irresponsible driver).

What entitled me to such a discount? I think that at the time, getting away with these offenses in this manner, or at least having them heavily downgraded, created a moral hazard.

Ultimately, I think Richard’s criticisms of entitlement are reflected in various layers of enforcement. While discretion is welcome in all areas of enforcement, notions of entitlement (perhaps including class, ethnicity etc. in my case) seem to have distorted the implementation of road rules. And nowadays when I *think* my ethical/moral compass is more mature, notions of entitlement and (faux) humility are poor defences for strict liability.

Phil West
Phil West
11 years ago

They should not take this blokes licence, they should lock him in a padded room.

Anyone who can think that our roads are subsidised obviously has a couple of screws loose.

With quite a bit more than half the cost of petrol being excise, & GST, the fact of the matter is that without those taxes the countey would sink.

Add to that all the state rip off taxes & you find that the motorist is funding a damn sight more of the government excesses, than they ought, & getting stuff all back in terms of roads, or anything else.

I hope this blokes work does not involve maths.

11 years ago

Cars seem to be a right around here, not a privilege. A hoon driving like a nut who kills another human gets off with a fine and maybe a 6 months loss of driving privileges. Cars hold such a sacred place that even wilful negligence resulting in death gets barely a rap on the knuckles. Perhaps because without one it would be so much harder to spend all your money and keep the all important economy cranking over?

Here’s one take on the total cost of car use vs petrol taxes: http://www.ptua.org.au/myths/petroltax.shtml

Edward Mariyani-Squire
Edward Mariyani-Squire
11 years ago

Just for fun, here is a quick qualified defence of “entitlement”:

Road rules are designed to prevent harm. There are cases where
(a) breaking the rules probably prevents more harm than sticking to them, and
(b) breaking the rules does not increase the chance of harm being done.

E.g. of (a): ambulances and fire engines. Presumably, analogous cases could ocassionally occur for private citizens.

E.g. of (b): doing a U-turn across double-lines in an straight, empty street at 1am in the morning.

In such cases, I imagine a driver would feel justifiably entitled to not be punished for breaking the rules.

John B
John B
11 years ago

Amazing! In only 4 comments, we have 4 distinct personalities.

1. I am older and wiser now and realise how silly I was before I learned to be not-silly.

2. I received several downgraded penalties in my youth and still feel guilt because I didn’t receive a public flogging. This guilt, I transfer now to those softies of police officers who really should have just got on with their job and punished me to the full extent of the law (or some other cliche).

3. I own the road. Bought and paid for it. It’s mine.

4. Road rules are just guides and should be as elastic as I want them to be. As an occasional driver of an emergency vehicle during the past 20 years, I have absolutely no sympathy for this point of view, by the way. Driving under lights and siren is not a trivial, unplanned activity. It takes training and discipline. Those who do not exhibit the necessary discipline are on their own when it all comes unstuck, and rightly so. It boils down to the difference between wanting to do something with impugnity, eg cross double lines ay 2am, versus the responsibility that comes with using a siren to clear the road in front and the need to anticipate the actions of all drivers around and beside you, because if/when a collision happens, the onus of proof is on the emergency vehicle driver to prove that their action was safe, even though it clearly resulted in an accident; ie prima facie, was found to be unsafe. This is played out on the front page of the paper as well as in the court. Not a nice place to be, in either case.

As for the article, I hope that Richard retains his bike licence, if for no other reason that he has thought deeply about his actions, rather than trying to dismiss the incident as unfair/pure chance/just life, Other People’s Problem, etc.

11 years ago

For many years now in my head I’ve had this idea of a utopian zero-point licensing system.

Any infringement would result in the permanent loss of license, and getting caught driving without a license is a summary offense with the most severe punishment applicable.

Sure for the first few decades you would end up with overcrowded prisons (not an issue in a capital punishment state), but people will gradually get the message that it’s far too risky. Driving should be a priveledge, not a right, and “aggravated driving occasioning death” should just be murder.

On a more practical level, the best system I know of is to follow Singapore and make it oppressively expensive to own a vehicle via taxes, levies, etc.

Edward Mariyani-Squire
Edward Mariyani-Squire
11 years ago

@ John B #6 said, in relation to my ‘fun’ comment:

Road rules are just guides and should be as elastic as I want them to be.

I wonder whether I should read your post as follows: “People’s comments are just guides to my interpretation of them, and should be as elastic as I want them to be.”

To clarify: Road rules are not just “guides”. They are rules of conduct – rules with a rationale. The rationale is that by following them, harm will be prevented. A rule – and so following a rule – is justified if and only if it serves that purpose. If it does not serve that purpose, then it is not justified.

Given your story about driving an emergency vehicle, it would appear that you presuppose the above rationale is the correct one, so there is no disagreement between us there. That is to say, you don’t believe in following rules just because they are rules. ‘Following rules because they are rules’ is surely irrational; and punishing people for for that reason alone is prima facie unjust.

As for the rest, that is just a matter of ‘the facts of the case’ – again, something amply demonstrated in your story about driving an emergency vehicle.

Nicholas Gruen
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
11 years ago

John B,

I didn’t say anything about being old. I am in fact very young. I turned 19 last July.