The tragic train wreck on the NY Metro-North made me shake my head because, as many of my former public safety peers well know, it was totally avoidable. It brought to mind all the countless tragedies I witnessed throughout my police career. The most frustrating of all were the traffic fatalities because of the senselessness. Some of the crashes (we stopped calling them “accidents” years ago) were no doubt caused by straight up human error, what we’d call a mental lapse. However, the vast majority are different. They are caused by human selfishness in the form of impatience, such as running a red light or criminal behavior, like driving under the influence.
One of the most despised law enforcement duties is issuing traffic citations. I think that is the task that keeps the public from loving cops the way they do firefighters. Both voluntarily work in dangerous conditions, risking personal safety for the public good, but firemen don’t also occasionally write you a ticket. Police officers sometimes hate this part of the job, too, because they’re working stiffs just like you, and recognize the financial burden a $100+ ticket will place upon that driver. Really. Cops do think about that.
Lately, much public debate has centered on the “small” or “frivolous” types of law enforcement action, like traffic stops. People feel picked on or that the cops are unnecessarily targeting them. Every cop alive has heard “Why don’t you go arrest a criminal?” on too many traffic stops to count. Well, here’s the answer: It’s not about writing tickets, it’s about saving lives. We all hate it when we get stopped, but let’s be honest, we also love seeing the jerk who’s been tailgating, speeding, weaving erratically get stopped. Right? We brand everyone who flies past us and does these things maniacs, while any person going slower is an idiot. Sound familiar?
Let’s be honest, if it were possible to allow people to make their own decisions about how to drive, we would. But it is absolutely not possible. Our own selfishness prevents that. Our egocentric attitudes are what make us run red lights, block intersections, shatter speed limits, and violate the railroad crossing warnings. According to the National Safety Council, 35,200 people died in motor vehicle accidents last year, and a staggering 3.8 million suffered injuries requiring medical attention. About 1000 traffic deaths each year are due to red light violations. Crashes involving passenger cars and trains have declined in recent years, but still cause an average of around 250 deaths a year. Statistically, about half of the deaths are innocent drivers in other cars, or in the latest NY train case, three innocent people killed and many others badly injured. That’s why cops write tickets. To prevent these tragedies. Sadly, it seems that news footage of carnage doesn’t get the public’s attention as much as shelling out a couple hundred bucks for a ticket. So be it. Responding to horrific crashes for so many years has made me only sympathetic to the innocents in the other vehicle, not the at-fault driver.
It’s up to each of us to make better decisions while operating our cars on the road. Yeah, we have a lot of rules governing how we drive and that’s because we’ve collectively shown we need boundaries. New railroad crossings and safer roads can only do so much. You have to do the rest. Stop trying to blame the short light cycle at the intersection or that the railroad crossing is defective. They’re not. Starting tomorrow, give yourself and others a break, leave earlier, obey the rules of the road, and if you have to sit at the railroad crossing or red light, just chill the heck out. It’s not the end of the world. You’ll find that your commute is less stressful, you won’t get a ticket, and most importantly, you’ll arrive in one piece.
Tickets save lives.