Collier’s Weekly: A Dump Truck, a Windshield and a Traffic Cop

On the occasion of a Route 28 mishap, I’m wondering why we’re wasting time and resources on face-to-face citations for routine traffic violations.
Speed Trap


I was driving on Route 28 North, Pittsburgh’s favorite road for absurd automotive misfortune, when a creaky old dump truck lumbered ahead of me.

The hulking beast, shuddering and rattling like something out of “Mad Max,” was trailed by its own confetti: a dangerous spray of pebbles, dirt and other unidentifiable detritus. Much of this jettisoned filth was raining down directly onto my car; I sped up to pass the behemoth, but the damage was done.

“I hate to tell you this,” my companion told me from the passenger’s seat, “but I think your windshield is cracked.” She leaned forward to point at a long, thin line that hadn’t been there a moment ago.

Determined to get the license plate of the spitting rig, I swapped positions again, falling behind the dump truck. When I got a view of its plates, however, I found they had been so thoroughly covered with muck and grime that no identification was possible. Even on a thoroughly filthy vehicle, the dirt over the plates seemed especially thick.

Could it be that the driver of this rolling disaster knew that their truck was a hazard to all that trailed it, so they covered the plate to avoid trouble?

Nah. Couldn’t be that.

Frustrated in that “this is gonna cost me and I know there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it” way unique to car catastrophe, I slowed again to let the dump truck get well ahead of me and hoped that my insurance was considerably better than I suspected.

Now, if you’ll indulge me in a flashback, a funny thing happened about 5 miles before my fateful encounter with this highway horror: We both passed an idling police car. The cop in question wasn’t well hidden; in fact, he was in plain sight, between the northbound and southbound lanes of Route 28, halfway down a long hill. All the passing drivers were spotting the police cruiser, slowing down to pass it then speeding up again after a mile or so.

Certainly, the officer in that car would have noticed the spewing dump truck as it rolled by. If that officer bothered even to glance at the truck, they would’ve seen the obscured plates. If the dangerous conditions weren’t enough to warrant a traffic stop, surely the bad plates were — yet this officer had other plans, choosing to wait around until an opportunity for a routine speeding ticket presented itself.

To me, this begs the question: Why are we still bothering with traffic stops for speeding, exactly?

While I am inclined to give it a little extra gas on long drives, I recognize the need for speed limits; assuredly, they save lives (a fact even more profound in an era of frequently distracted driving). I am not saying we should abolish speed limits and turn our highways into Autobahn-esque free-for-alls.

There’s just absolutely no reason to send actual law enforcement officers to issue them. In fact, there are great reasons not to do that.

We’ve had the technology to issue speeding tickets via automated cameras for decades. Just as the Pennsylvania Turnpike now handles all tolls by cameras and mail, speeding tickets can easily be automated and issued without anyone ever having to pull over on the side of a busy highway. And while automated tickets will make speeding citations more difficult to avoid … well, that’s sort of the point, isn’t it? (They shouldn’t be quite as costly, but that’s a subject for another day.)

This isn’t just a matter of nuisance or wasted resources; it’s a safety issue. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, “about 100 crashes” in the past five years have involved a driver hitting and killing a law-enforcement officer on the side of the road; about two dozen additional roadside workers and first responders are killed annually under similar circumstances.

Police officers are taught that traffic stops are unpredictable and dangerous — instruction that has, according to some analysis, led to recent increases in violent outcomes at traffic stops. In short, pulling drivers over is unsafe for both drivers and law enforcement — and, in the case of speeding tickets, patently unnecessary.

I don’t mean to suggest that no one should ever be pulled over; in fact, I think a certain dump truck absolutely should’ve been. It’s not hard to find drivers who are behaving dangerously; they should absolutely be stopped when spotted. But wasting time and resources to use an antiquated, dangerous method of handing out a paper citation when the job can be done better by traffic cameras is completely unnecessary.

Will I grumble the first time I get a speeding ticket in the mail? Sure. But it’ll be my own fault — unlike the effects of that hulking dump truck.

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