Smile Politely

The irony of The Car

My two previous columns addressed the issues of The Car versus The Bicyclist, and The Driver versus The State. I’ve already explained that we don’t care about victims of distracted driving because we don’t want the State’s Attorney to jail us.

The Combs-Maul Affair, and especially the response from The People, revives a great old debate: How far do we want government to go in “protecting” us?

Does our current State’s Attorney err on the side of leniency? Is that the problem with the spate of distracted drivers mowing down bicyclists? Do we want to revert to a Hanging Republican?

Do we really want to lock Errol Maul away? Or did he simply lose the game of Roadway Roulette we play every day?

How many other people are driving in Champaign County, right now, with a cell phone in one hand? Are you?

The Rietz-Piland debate involves real legal issues like culpability, the difference between civil and criminal prosecutions, bleeding hearts holding hands with rapists, etc. But (outrageously?) the State’s Attorney is not always empowered to decide this subjective point of public policy. Sometimes cops and city administrators take the law into their own hands.

I asked Ms. Rietz, in reference to this story from the N-G:


Are theft and battery cases truly prosecuted at the discretion of local cops?


… if the officer chooses to write a city ticket we do not receive a report. The cities can enact ordinances covering offenses that could be prosecuted under state law, and for those offenses, the arresting officer has the discretion to choose between a city ordinance ticket and a state arrest. Similarly but on the other end of the jurisdiction scale, there are offenses that could be prosecuted under state law or under federal law, and the officers can choose to take the case to the US Attorney’s Office for federal review. This process is not unique to the Champaign Police Department; all cities have ordinances and follow the same process.


I ran into Libertarian Party mensch Dianna Visek recently. We were shopping for produce.

As I’ve written before in this column; I always feel improved by interacting with Dianna Visek. It doesn’t matter whether I agree with her.

She told me of a new program through which offenders and victims are reconciled. She decried prosecution in which “the state” is identified as the victim. Fair enough.

But I want the state to speak for me. I’ve stuck my neck out plenty on some serious issues, because my city government won’t do it for me.

I don’t fill potholes. I don’t extinguish house fires. I’d rather not be the lightning rod for criticism that comes with any civil rights campaign. There are some things I want government to do. One thing I want government to do is crack down on distracted driving.

Your car has an identifying tag bolted to its rear. It allows the government to track you. You can’t drive without a license issued by the state. It has your picture and address on it. It allows the government to track you.

Few of us question this regimen. We’re a commonwealth. We frequently sacrifice our individual liberties for the betterment of everyone.

Nero Wolfe explained it to an impudent German:

“There is no discipline in your country, Mr. Wolfe.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that. There are various kinds of discipline. One man’s flower is another man’s weed. We submit to traffic cops and the sanitary code and so on, but we are extremely fond of certain liberties.”

In a neighborhood zoned for sleeping and relaxing in the garden, that means you can’t have a metal shop. You can’t race dragsters. No incinerators for your trash.

For the sake of a peaceful society, most of us willingly sacrifice these freedoms.


Unfortunately, not everyone shares that willing. Some people view the yin of “rights” in a vacuum, without its corresponding yang “responsibilities.”

When government fails to protect us, we’re incensed. When government protects others from us, we’re incensed.

This perversion is nowhere more apparent than inside our cars.

The car is the symbol of American Freedom. The souped-up, tricked-out hotrod even more so. And the thunderous Harley-Davidson is purpose-built to say Fuck You, I’m Rebelling.

A car is a bomb. Whenever they say ‘car bomb’ I think, how redundant. What is a car? A car is a giant container filled with an explosive.

-Fran Lebowitz

Bicycles, on the other hand, are not dangerous to anyone except the rider.

Unfortunately, some people associate bicycling with inferior social status. Cars tell people you’re somebody. Bikes tell people you’ve had a DUI, or recently arrived from Chiapas.

If not for cars, how would we know where VIPs live?

That’s terrible. We need more people to ride bikes. To reduce our oil dependence, to work off the cheeseburgers, for clean air, so we don’t have to keep building more lanes on more highways, to stop isolating ourselves from the world around us; the bicycle is the answer.


Should you be shocked that individual cops decide whether offenders will be prosecuted for violent crimes, property crimes and “lesser” offenses which can ruin your life daily?

The objective problem with this scheme is that Offender A will get a more severe punishment than Offender B. It’s the luck of the draw, good cop or bad cop.

A worse problem is the victim’s. How does the victim benefit from subjective leniency?

It’s for this reason that I want to remove human error from the justice system. I want more electronic monitoring, and less reliance on testimony. People lie. People forget. And most insidious of all, testimonial witnesses suffer at least 107 different cognitive biases, including 10 memory biases.

We don’t need cops to watch our every movement. But now that we’ve invented a new, ubiquitous means for Idiocy at The Wheel, we need to do something to save ourselves from ourselves.

If we knew a camera was recording our every movement, and wouldn’t stop/erase until we’d safely extinguished the engine; we’d police ourselves. That’s not going to happen, of course. Nor will Illinois legislators vote for any sensible distracted driving penalties.

It’s no good reacting to Errol Maul. The damage is done. We need to be pro-active. We need to stop your girlfriend, your cousin or YOU from becoming the next Errol Maul.

But we won’t.

It will keep happening.

Watch out.

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