QED

Puritans and speed cameras

Visit the United States for any length of time, as I just have, and you’ll find a certain puritanical streak that crops up fairly frequently. For instance, having an alcoholic drink at lunch in the States in business and university circles is now widely frowned upon, to the extent that when I’m there I have this overwhelming desire to have a big glass of wine or a beer at lunch, something I rarely do in Australia. In fact I like to order a second glass of wine at those lunches just to watch for the disdainful, disapproving glances.

 Americans, or at least middle class Americans, are puritanical about alcohol consumption. Don’t take my anecdotal lunch time experiences as proof. Look at the age that one can legally drink over there. It’s 21! Greek and Italian teenagers, and other Mediterranean nationals, have been experiencing the stuff for near on a decade by that age. Of course no one really thinks American kids wait till they’re 21 to drink. They just do it illegally at private homes or in fraternity houses.

This puritanical streak is reinforced by a growing trend towards the politically correct, by which I mean an unwillingness to acknowledge clear and obvious facts – indisputable empirical facts – because of a fear of the way such facts might be perceived or taken by certain groups to whom those wielding power have decided to be super, hyper-sensitive.

Think of being politically correct, or PC, as the choice to opt for siding with those who pretend the emperor is wearing clothes, when the facts say he isn’t, if there’s even the slightest chance that any group (or rather any group that is deemed worthy of approval) might be offended by those facts.  

This combination of a puritanical streak and the ever-expanding genuflecting to political correctness may explain a phenomenon I recently experienced in travels that took me to the US. It happened when I went into a bar and the bartender insisted on the production of photo identification from ALL customers to prove their age.

Now don’t get me wrong. Sure, I may be an extremely fit and amazingly young-looking 49 year old with boyish good looks, but even so, no one my age could help but be flattered no end to be asked for ID to show he’s over 21 before being allowed to buy a drink. That said, on questioning the bartender’s eyesight and sanity, and having him point to a big sign reading ALL CUSTOMERS MUST PRODUCE PHOTO ID, some of the flattery wore off. What could possibly explain such a bizarre policy other than a desire not to offend anyone?

‘Would an 82 year old grandmother have to produce ID?’, I asked the bartender. ‘Alas, yes’, came the reply.

Better to avoid offending anyone than admitting that some people are obviously older than 21. That is the only way to understand such an idiotic policy. One could understand a rule that required the bartender to ask for ID if he had the slightest doubt at all as to the patron’s age. But in my case there could never have been any doubt at all that I am older than 21, even were I to undertake a year’s worth of botox treatments. And I daresay a good many other customers in that bar looked even older than I do.

 I could go on with other examples of the puritanical streak in the US, and worse still of political correctness run rampant. After all, there’s almost always a market in running down the Yanks. 

But I happen to like the Americans. And anyway, I want to shift over to pointing out Australian puritanical tendencies, because we’ve got them too. The best example of this that comes to my mind, after living here in Australia for five years now, is the rules related to speeding. Australians are unbelievably puritanical when it comes to the speed one can legally drive his or her car. (And, yes, yes, I can hear the self-righteous shrieks about safety and unnecessary traffic deaths even as I write this.)

Take a drive from Brisbane down to the New South Wales border and you will spend much of your time having to go 80 km/hr. There will be patches of 100, and the odd bit of 110, but also stretches of 90 and lower. Then you hit New South Wales and the speed limit careens around from 80 to 90 to 70 to 80 to 60 with little, if any, noticeable change to road conditions.

Meanwhile overseas, from where I’ve just returned, people in the UK drive at much higher speeds than here, and in driving conditions that can include snow. In Los Angeles last month I was regularly driving at 75 to 80 miles per hour, which is just a shade under 130 in metric terms, and I was one of the slower cars.

Even in New Zealand, where my family and I lived for more than a decade, one can drive at 120 on a highway and not fear getting a ticket.  Speed limits in Canada, where you can count on almost half a year of snow on the roads, are higher still.

So what is it about Australia? Are we particularly poor drivers? Do we have fantastically better statistics as far as deaths and injuries due to traffic accidents are concerned? Or is this in part an attempt by enfeebled and fiscally emasculated State governments to raise revenue through speeding fines?

You might think it’s largely the latter, though I couldn’t possibly comment. I will say this though. A provincial election in my native Ontario, Canada once involved the issue of speed cameras, and the party wanting to take many of them down won. And that was in a jurisdiction where a speed camera violation could only get you a fine, not any loss of points.

Or take Arizona today. The attempt there to introduce speed cameras has resulted in a public revolt, with motorists simply throwing in the bin speeding fines worth some US$90 million. The scheme is on the verge of bankruptcy, which would end the first statewide attempt in the US to bring in speed camera enforcement.

And that’s in a state where only 76 cameras have been put in place. The 700,000 tickets issued so far, totalling $127 million in fines, have seen only $37 million paid and the rest ignored. It turns out that in the US the authorities have to prove you have received the tickets. And sending it by post is not good enough. Other alternatives are too costly. And the voters are revolting.

Of course the puritanical, health and safety aficionado’s response to all this is that it’s worth it if it saves even one life, an answer not unlike what you’d hear in the States about higher drinking restrictions. And in a sense it’s true. If we had a speed limit of 30 km/hr even on highways there would be fewer deaths due to accidents. But there would be a host of offsetting other bad consequences, and inefficiencies, and delays, some even leading to deaths. And anyway, the worst thing about sanctimonious puritans isn’t that they’re wholly wrong, it’s that they assume everyone has the same priorities and sentiments as they do.

James Allan is Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland

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