Category Archives: Roads

Respect is a Two Way Street

This past week the Georgia General Assembly passed House Bill 673, which broadens the existing Georgia ban on texting while driving. The bill requires the use of hands-free technology when such devices are in use. The putative goal of this legislation is then to keep more eyes on the road and fewer in the lap. Certainly a laudable goal and for the most part it should have the intended effect (once drivers are pulled over – 99% of people are not plugged into the news cycle and will remain ignorant of this subtle change in the law until they themselves are informed by the local constabulary).

However it seems no new law is complete without smuggling in a perverse incentive clause. Such lunacy is the hallmark of government imposed rules. A perverse incentive produces the exact opposite of the desired outcome. One of the more humorous examples is the one in which 19th century paleontologist in China would pay peasants for dinosaur bone fragments they happened to find when plowing their fields. Win-win, right? Wrong: the villagers, they learned later, were smashing the bones into numerous tiny fragments to maximize the per piece payments. So in similar fashion this new law has a backdoor that will maximize, rather than minimize, eyes in the lap. It does not recognize an exception on the prohibition of device usage even when stopped at a stop light or stop sign. Since it is much more likely to be noticed using your phone while stopped (beat cop, motorcycle cop, or nearby patrol car) this continued prohibition will have the entirely predicable outcome of incentivizing people to clandestinely use their phone in their lap where nearby eyes are less likely to notice phone manipulation. It makes zero sense to disallow use while stopped. When your vehicle is not moving you present zero danger to anyone. At worst you may get honked at for not moving when the light turns green. If people know they can check their phone every few minutes at the next light they will be far more willing to simply wait until that opening arrives. But if that opportunity is proscribed and made even more fine-risky relative to use while in motion, then people will choose the less fine-risky path and do so while in motion.

If we must have road socialism (state ownership) then it shouldn’t be too much to ask that such owners provide the people with a safe product. To encourage a safe environment there needs to exist legal liability for the owners along with a set of fairly enforced and rationally understandable rules. We’ll never have the former but two out of three is better than nothing. When the rules (traffic laws) are neither fair (e.g. letter of the law rather than spirit of the law enforcement), nor rationale (ban on use while stopped) and to top it all off driven by blatant self-interest (fine collection) then drivers lose respect for those rules and the institution that enforces them and that loss of respects hurts all on the road. If people respect the reasons behind the rule, they’ll respect the rule. In Germany speed limits are set to maximize safety, not revenue. Drivers there will be slow down or speed up in unison upon changes – because they respect that the sign is conveying real information about the driving environment rather than a desire to hand out speeding tickets. If the state respects the driver, the driver will respect the rules.

Drive Free

Last week I was able to experience a privilege not found anywhere in this bastion of freedom otherwise known as the United States. To find it I had to travel all the way to the arguably much less free and more socialist Germany. Yes, I am speaking of the Autobahn, that driving Nirvana that every red-blooded American and teenage boy with a newly minted driving license dreams of. Now, not to burst anyone’s bubble but it is not the 10-lane super highway we all manage to conjure up as we imagine speeding along at 200 mph. In fact, it in many sections it has more in common with two lane I-20 than any roadway utopia. But the crucial (and fun!) difference is there are stretches of highway where there is no speed limit.

Like “Red” from “Shawshank Redemption” who only recognized his own “institutionalization” after he had been released I was a bit reticent at first. “Someone must be watching,” and “I’m going to get in trouble,” flashed through my mind. But then slowly I experimented. First cruising at 85 mph (the super-speeder speed here in Georgia that would get you a $700 ticket), then 95, then 100! Hard to believe, safely moving at 100 mph! That became old pretty quick and I eventually worked up the courage to hit 200 km/h (125 mph). Still a bit of a chicken I slowed back down to a mere 110 mph all while people still passed me.

And then they all suddenly slowed down. Was it an accident? Was it a cop? No. It was simply a speed limit sign (yes, the autobahn does have speed limits). And everyone quickly and uniformly obeyed it. Why? Not because they might get a ticket (indeed I never saw a single police car the entire time driving on the Autobahn – tickets are only given for speeding if you actually are involved in an accident) but because they all respected the message of the sign. In Germany the speed limit sign is not there as a matter of revenue collection, it is there as a matter of genuine safety. Their speed limit signs are the equivalent to our yellow safety signs that warn a driver that conditions might be slippery when wet, that a bridge may ice over in the winter or that one really should slow down to 45 mph on that tight radius exit. You don’t get tickets here for ignoring those signs unless you actually cause an accident, so people obey them. Speed limit signs in the US are often flouted because we all know they are for the most part set artificially too low in order to enhance revenue collection. If the rules are structured to benefit a third party more than you, they will be ignored. If the rules are structured to benefit only you, they will be respected. This respect can clearly be seen on German roads. Actually slowing down when appropriate makes the roads far safer. One is about twice as likely to die on US highways than on the Autobahn in terms of deaths per distance driven (1.7 vs. 3.4 deaths per 1 billion kilometers). And yet we are told that speed kills. While it is true that all things equal higher speed is more deadly, all things are not equal. There exist different cars, different tires, different road conditions and last but not least, different levels of driving skill.

So when Bernie tells us we should emulate the European model, I agree! Let’s copy those Germans and bring freedom back to our roads here in the States. If it could save upwards of 8,000 lives per year, why not try?

But… but… the roads!

It is curious that “the roads” falls among the top justifications for the existence of government. Setting aside the laughably false choice implicit in this sentiment (i.e. that roads could not exist absent government) we are left to ponder how one of the most poorly run government services is supposed to bolster, rather than weaken, the case for government. Poorly run? How so? Allow me to elaborate. Crumbling infrastructure. Traffic congestion. Traffic delays. Roads littered daily with accidents, injuries and deaths that on an annual scale reach into the millions of accidents and tens of thousands of deaths. What’s that? Unfair assessment you say? It’s the drivers causing the accidents and greedy selfish taxpayers not wanting to pay more in taxes to build more roads. Perhaps. But consider this: Imagine that a big evil corporation owned all the roads. Would there not be an outcry over these statistics? Would there not be an outcry over high prices for a poor product? Would people not say the company is more interested in profit than in making roadways safer? However, and here is the key difference in this counterfactual scenario, were a private company the owner of the roads the public would have at least one remedy not available today. The lawsuit. Private road owners, in contrast to “public” owners, are liable for events occurring on their private property. The injured could sue the road owners for providing an unsafe product. However, such suits would be few and far between. Road owners would see that problem a mile away. They would proactively invest in safety measures to ensure no one dies on their roads. There is a reason after all that air travel is statistically safer than road travel: an airline that had the same fatality rate per mile would have been sued out of existence long ago (or simply gone bankrupt as everyone stopped flying them in droves).

But such a recourse does not exist today. Those in government are immune from liability for their actions. When poor decisions are made, nobody is held accountable. Due to the revolving door structure of political office, decisions are made that maximize short-term benefits at the expense of long-term goals. This mode of operation tends to get one reelected. People naturally prefer those who promise stuff now vs later. The system can’t be “fixed” because the inherent feedback in the system drives it to always select for short-term minded stewards.

Would private roads operate any better? Given any particular owner there is no way to predict. Whether private or public, those in charge are just people. People are imperfect. However, in a private system there is a feedback mechanism that keeps the good and removes the bad. That mechanism is driven by competition and liability. An owner that keeps his roads safe, fast, and efficient is providing what the consumer wants. He stays in business. The owner that does the opposite goes out of business. Competition is the linchpin of free market regulation. It drives us to do better than the other guy. It drives us to provide a better and safer product in order to avoid the losses of liability. In short, competition is how we keep each other “in line” – no Big Brother needed.

Now armed with that knowledge, ask yourself, where is the competition in government? Voting? Please – that’s tantamount to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. If AT&T were providing poor service, would you rather (a) vote concerning changing whatever policy displeases you but not be allowed to stop buying AT&T’s product if the vote does not go your way or (b) switch providers. Voting with your wallet is far more democratic than voting in the ballot box.

One might argue that roads are a natural monopoly, that there would be no competitor to switch to. This is superficially plausible, however it falls into the trap of assuming a private system must be exactly like the public system, just with a different owner. That would not be the case, the result of which would be opportunities for competition heretofore not yet envisioned (who knows, maybe we’d have our flying cars by now if the road system were private!). So, when you hear “but who will build the roads?” remember: a question is not an argument. One’s lack of imagination is not proof of anything.