Sunday, September 25, 2005

Where is the line?

Bell curve on zero tolerance is undemocratic!

That's a mouthful isn’t it?

I put a marker in my blogger dashboard and the above was the sentence I used to remind myself what I wanted to talk about. And it is becoming increasingly obvious, as I am composing this, that I will issue more dissertations on Line Location.  

Anyway… I was waiting on another example of seemingly overbearing government action in day-to-day life in order to expound on zero tolerance.

The obvious example is the 100km/h speed limit on our major highways. It is an artificial guideline imposed on us, sometimes quite severely, in the name of safety. The interpretation is subject only to government whim and not much else. To wit, the 55mph limit imposed back in 1973 by some US states in response to the national gas crisis, to force fuel economy upon the populace. This limit stayed for decades afterwards because some idiot thought that this new limit yielded fewer accidents. Omigod: 55 SAVES LIVES!

That is right up until the enlightened realized that 65mph wasn’t the cause of any more accidents.  The real reason lives were saved was that people stayed home! I'd be willing to bet that the interstates which remain today at the 55mph limit are being abandoned in favour of the 65 highways, at least by those drivers who have a choice.  I know I do, and therefore bring my hard-earned abysmal Canadian dollar to the States that have the 65mph interstate highways.

The example I wish to harp on today is just as asinine, but closer to home. It's in Estonia! A good friend of mine is staying in Estonia for a while. One thing he noticed was the lack of jaywalking on otherwise completely deserted streets. Originally being from Toronto, and myself from Montreal, this is foreign concept to the both of us. Note that jaywalking is illegal in Estonia, as it is in Montreal, but I'm not sure about Toronto.

This is a beautiful example of a sound concept, badly applied as a law. Jaywalking under certain circumstances is somewhat dangerous, but then so is eating chicken. A law was then established to prohibit jaywalking with no provisions for any circumstances. By definition then, applying this law with zero tolerance makes police abusive, and the police has no choice in this matter because it's the law.  I’ll try to explain.

Some police officers can and will use better judgement and only issue tickets for jaywalking that is unsafe. This becomes untenable in the long-term: if someone is allowed jaywalking under safe circumstances, that same person may prove lack of judgement at a later time.

Do we regulate judgement? Yes we do, the existence of the jaywalking law proves it. Should we? Well that's a dogma-type question. More importantly: how is it done? It is done with the ever-popular-we-mean-business-politico-marketing-of zero tolerance, thereby making personal judgement an offence. In reality, this judgement can be explained in front of a judge after the fact. Too little, too late for most of us.

If the politicians don't decree a zero-tolerance initiative at least once in a while, then we have created another problem: uncertainty. How much tolerance is "some"? Experience will then dictate our conduct. For example, I've travelled most highways at around 115km/h with no ill effect, so to me 115km/h is a speed devoid of penalty, but this is not rule. I will jaywalk systematically in Montreal; waiting for a light will get one killed.

We can blame the drivers, and lose a 3000lb battle, or we can safely jaywalk.  This is, of course, incongruous with the law written, presumably, for our safety. The downside is that many people jaywalk in Montreal in a manner quite unsafe for themselves and put others at risk as well. So the police should ticket only unsafe jaywalking? Again, not a tenable solution.

We have recurring problems with this line of judgement. Even among cops, they won't agree with each other on what's unsafe jaywalking. Instead, they will be told to toe a party line, of which the public at large will often be unaware. By yet another means, the officer has been regulated and personal judgement taken away. This isn't inherently a bad thing; it's just messy for the rest of us who are not in the know.

I'm not talking about removing responsibility; I'm talking about the freedom to comply.  Luckily, or maybe not, some enlightened politicians will announce a zero-tolerance policy for a set time, in order to allow one the choice to comply without incurring penalty, nor ambiguity, allowing those of us who listen or read the news to dictate our own conduct.

It's still artificial though. And this is truly where society defeats itself...  I will jaywalk systematically, and hopefully safely, unless, and only unless, there is a push on for zero-tolerance.  And I am not alone.  So what has the law really accomplished?  If zero-tolerance is instituted permanently, then we have a grave problem, as the law, any law, was never written to tolerate zero-tolerance.  

Indicated speed in one’s car will be 100km/h.  You get clocked at 102, and are convicted of grave crimes against humanity with a fine imposed to pay for the government’s trouble of hauling your ass back in-line.  That’s zero-tolerance.  

Driving slower simply means we are hedging, in effect, not allowing us to reasonably attain the maximum allowable.  It’s worse with jaywalking.  Theoretically, you simply cannot dash across the neighbourhood street to go see your buddy, to say nothing of street hockey! Yet with zero-tolerance, these are banned as well.  No sane police officer would enforce this, but my point is made: laws are not written for zero-tolerance edicts.

I come back to my opening statement, the bell-curve: most of the data will be on either side of a mean (average):  in Montreal most people will be jaywalking relatively safely.  Imposing zero-tolerance brings most of this, if not the entire, bell curve under attack, because the zero-tolerance line is drawn afield of the average!  This is most undemocratic, by definition.  

The average in Estonia is no jaywalking at all: zero tolerance is then afoot of the bell curve, and de facto already accomplished. The bell curve is not under attack.  Democracy is theoretically preserved, at zero-tolerance or not, as a majority of people already comply, for various reasons which maybe discussed in another blog entry.

So where is the line?  To say it moves is wildly understating the problem.  To say it’s absolute, read zero-tolerance, is just plain stupid.

Now a last thought, let’s say for a minute, that jaywalking is a capital offence in Estonia…


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