Bryan Caplan  

View from the Rear-View Mirror: The U.S. Really Is a Police State

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In Germany, most highways have no speed limits at all. In France, all highways have speed limits, but there appears to be virtually zero enforcement. I was on the roads of France for almost a week, and I never saw a person getting a ticket.

The contrast with the U.S. couldn't be sharper. On our highways, the police are everywhere, and they hand out tickets like spammers. It only takes a week abroad to realize that the U.S. is literally a police state. There are police all over the place, and people are afraid of them.

So what? Isn't it possible that all those tickets do some good? Perhaps, but even on pragmatic grounds, I greatly prefer the Franco-German approach. I'd rather get where I'm going at 160 kph, and watch the road instead of my rear-view mirror, even if my life expectancy slightly falls. In fact, the case for Franco-German policy is stronger in the U.S. because the country is less scenic; when you're stuck in traffic in Burgundy, at least you've got a nice view.

How about you? If we pulled 90% of the police off the roads, would you cheer, or tremble?

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The author at Incentives Matter in a related article titled Is it "We the people,' or is it "Us versus them"? writes:
    Bryan Caplan over at Econlog believes it's the latter.In Germany, most highways have no speed limits at all. In France, all highways have speed limits, but there appears to be [Tracked on June 2, 2008 4:57 PM]
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Sam writes:

When I was a younger man I would have agreed with you. As a father, I have no problem with the strict enforcement of the speedlimits, because speeders are putting other people (like my 1 year old) at risk. If you want to complain, complain that the speed limit is too low, not that it is enforced at all.

Swimmy writes:

For me, it would depend on the road. I live in Fairfax now, but I'm from Tennessee. On the way home, all the way down interstate 81, there are a lot of cops, and I don't feel one bit safer for them. Experienced speeders know how to avoid them, and it's a mostly-straight and extremely boring road anyway.

However, the backwoods highway I have to take to get to home from 81 is one of the most dangerous roads in the area. Almost every time there's a deadly crash reported in the local paper, it's on this road. It's windy, the nearby residents think they know it well enough to push their limits, and there are lots of blind curves. I've never seen a police officer on it. I'd like to.

Matt writes:

In my town of Fresno CA, about 5% of the drivers are methamphetamine brain damaged.

Swimmy writes:

Afterthought: In other words, I'd prefer police to spend less time on roads that are known to bring in revenue and more time on roads that we know are, statistically, more dangerous. Clearly this is wishful thinking.

mgroves writes:

I know that time is precious, but why are people in such a big damn hurry? Seriously, unless you are driving cross-country (or in a sparse area like Montana), you aren't going to save a lot of time by driving super fast.

If your schedule is so friggin tight where that extra couple minutes really matters, just sleep a few minutes less: you'll get where you're going earlier, and the burden of a shorter lifespan falls squarely on you.

trumpetbob15 writes:

I would rather have less cops because as crazy as it sounds, it might be safer. There were more than a few times just this year alone where the cops would pull someone over for going over the completely arbitrary 25mph speed limit in town, but would end up blocking a lane of traffic to do so. Even if the pulled-over car is completely off the road, the law requires people to slow down and get over a lane, meaning people have to suddenly slam on the brakes and try to cram into one-less lane. On the highway, this can be extremally dangerous. Unfortunately, if anyone studied this situation, any accident resulting from people slowing down and getting over a lane would probably be classified as a person driving without control, even though if the cop wasn't there, no accident would happen. (Just for a purely anecdotal example of this, I was driving on the highway on my way to Thanksgiving dinner and all of a sudden this cop car is sitting on the side of the road with its lights on. As we all tried to slow down, I caught a patch of black ice and started to fishtail but was able to hold on. The driver behind me ended up doing a doughnut. Thankfully, that car was the last of the pack so no serious accident occurred, but the potential was there.)

Alex J. writes:

I-95 between Richmond and DC always struck me as the State of Virginia Revenue Extraction Zone.

Jeffrey Horn writes:

I've heard that we enjoy great freedom of mobility at the reduction of speed.

Have you been to Germany recently? Just as many Polizei on the highway as State Troopers in the U.S. They choose to pull people over for failing to stay in the right lane. Plus, they are authorized to use force to extract blood if they suspect you of drunk driving and you refuse a breathalyzer.

I don't know, but I'm sure I prefer the U.S. I've never been pulled over when I didn't deserve it.

Mike Greenberg writes:

I would give up 10% of my wage to remove the police from the road.

Gori Girl writes:

I believe the costs for gaining a driver's license are much higher in European countries than in the US. I imagine this keeps crap drivers off the road, which makes me much more comfortable with the idea of unenforced or no speed limits.

In Germany, for example, it costs at least 2,500 Euro for an 18-year-old to get a license, between the government costs for actually applying, and paying for the 25-45 hours required lessons of professional instruction on the road, and 15 or so hours of theory. The actual test, both written and practical, are also much more difficult than in the US.

Andrew writes:

In a world in which we all drive similar cars (i.e. similar good quality and same size) and the drivers are of the same type (sober, careful, sharp at all times on the road) I'd agree with you. In a world in which a highway is possibly populated by trucks, SUVs, and compact cars driven by people whose value of life is very heterogeneous I'd prefer the US as it is.

In addition, when it's safe, I always drive at 75-85 miles an hour (i.e. 130kph) on highways and never been stopped by the police. Also, suppose you commute every day 70 miles at an average of 70 miles an hour. If you instead were able to commute at 90 miles an hour you'll save 13 minutes. For the average guy, it's very easy to save those 13 minutes elsewhere (check once email less often, not read EconLog, etc) without increasing the probability of loosing once life. If you are not the average guy and those 13 minutes are really valuable, then you should consider paying someone to drive you around while you work on your car.

Phil writes:

These non-speeders miss the point: it's not the time savings, it's the pleasure of driving.

Going too slow for the conditions -- which usually means anything under 85 -- is fatiguing, like trying to read a blog post at 12 words per minute.

jack writes:

Price of gasoline: since an engine's gas consumption is increasing in speed, the much-higher gas prices in Europe provide some "internalization" of the speeding externality. But admittedly that's not the question you asked...

Someone from the otherside writes:

Might be because of the fact that in most of Europe, tickets are sent by mail, no need to pull people over.

Also, automatic radar traps are legal in most places (they are real moneymakers, too) and those really cannot very well pull people over.

Maybe we are a police state where the roads are concerned, but at least we don't have the gendarmerie walking around in camouflage with AK-47s everywhere, like in Paris.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

Visiting Sydney, Australia, I noticed a huge number of automated radar speed traps...because they are well marked with signs! I can only assume they slow down most people, and catch only the most drunk and stupid.

I ended up getting an automated ticket there, but it was because a lane of a tunnel was labeled something like "TMWN!" which in US-speak meant "Easy Pass Only"...

Finja writes:

In Germany, about a third of the highways do have a speed limit.

Troy Camplin writes:

If I could have exactly what I wanted, here is what I would do with the roads. 1) I would expand all highways from 4 to six lanes, making the innermost lane prohibited to semis. Most freeway traffic holdups I have experienced have been from one semi passing another 1 mph faster than the other is going. I'm about half convinced they do it just to annoy other drivers. In any case, I've noticed that traffic flows much more smoothly when there is a lane which prohibits semi traffic. 2) I would pull police off of interstates. I can think of a lot of places where we need police officers than spending time ticketing people trying to get someplace in a hurry. 3) I would eliminate all financial elements in policing. I've been told that police don't have any sort of quota system with tickets, but anyone who pays any attention at all knows that's a lie. The last week of the month, you'll be pulled over for intending to speed; the first week of the month you could drag race across the state of Texas without running into a single police car.

And this is a case where the police getting you for one small infraction doesn't have anything to do with larger ones. Anyone busy committing a crime while driving is typically going to be driving the speed limit, to avoid being noticed. There should be speed limits within town and city limits -- excepting open freeways, of course -- but otherwise ticketing is nothing more than a money-making scheme.

spencer writes:

the auto death rate in Europe average 11 per 100,000
as compared to 1.2 per 100,000 in the US.

So you life expectancy does not fall slightly,it is cut be almost a factor or ten.

Dan Weber writes:
So you life expectancy does not fall slightly,it is cut be almost a factor or ten.
I don't think you meant to say that.
Troy Camplin writes:

Yes, but is that due to highway accidents or other kinds of accidents? Also, one has to compare accident rates between Europe and the U.S. If they have a much lower accident rate, then that matters too.

Let me demonstrate how the idea of a "rate" can obscure facts (i.e., how to lie with statistics). Lawmakers said that seatbelt laws would reduce auto fatalities. The law passed, and when the fatality rate did in fact decrease, they pointed to it as evidence of the law's success. However, they failed to mention that the accident rate had in fact gone up. When the number of accidents goes up, the number of fatalities can stay the same, and the fatality rate will in fact go down. In fact, if the accident rate goes up faster than the number of fatalities, you can still legitimately say that the fatality rate per accident went down. The law in fact made the roads more dangerous -- especially for pedestrians -- but nobody's looking at the numbers all that closely.

So I'm going to need more information before I consider the information provided to be of any use to understanding the situation.

arne b writes:

@spencer: Where are these numbers from? What's the time span? Per 100,000 what? People?

Googling for "us traffic fatalities" gives a figure around 43,000 for each year around 2004-2006, for Europe one finds 50,000 in the EU in 2000 and the insight that Germany is way below average in that regard. Given that the EU population in 2000 (365M) was at least 20% higher than that of the U.S. in 2005 (which crossed the 300M mark last year, iirc), by that measure Europe seems to be safer.

Of course this does not account for differences in miles driven per person (presumably higher in the US), proportion of motorcycles on the road (more fatalities in case of accidents, probably higher in Europe), and a few other factors I can't think of at the moment. But that still leaves the question where your second number is from.

Sean writes:

I think the contrast is also in the laws that are enforced. You will see tickets issued for violations that lead to more accidents, like following too closely or passing on the right. After driving in Europe for a month I am very anxious on the roads in the US. I see more drivers making risky maneuvers uneducated about the danger.

Enforcing one law before accidents and the others afterwards illustrates to cynics like myself that the police really use speeding as a revenue source. Also, it is likely that the pursuit compounds the danger of the original offense. In the US if a person is speeding the police have to drive even faster to catch up to them. Does the enforcement then increase the very risks it attempts to mitigate?

nordsieck writes:

@spencer: the move from 11 to 1.2 per 100,000 is quite small when viewed as a component of total life expectancy. My guess is that motorcycle accidents would continue to dominate the statistic, being 44% of all fatal accidents in the US; I couldn't find the date, but it's within the last 5 years.

The only "experiment" I'm aware of that was done on a relatively constant population is the case of Montana, when there was a period of "reasonable and prudent" daylight speed limit, followed, by a period of no daylight speed limit and then a 75 mph daylight speed limit.

It seems quite clear that the lack of a daylight speed limit didn't seem to increase fatalities, and does appear to have decrease fatalities, depending on how one parses the data.

There is some data at the bottom of this page:

While this incident doesn't eliminate all variables, it does eliminate the issue of comparing across populations (with different cultures, ancillary laws, etc.) which seems to be quite problematic in many of figures quoted in the comments above me.

nordsieck writes:

After poking around, trying to find a reference for the 44% claim in my last comment, the claim itself looks more and more dubious, to the point where I'd retract it if I could.

nocountry writes:

I strongly second Bryan's sentiment. Having lived in China for five years, I can definitively say that police in the U.S. are far scarier in day-to-day situations. Sure, in the U.S. are you are unlikely to go to jail for your political views. But you are far more likely to get in trouble for any number of minor offenses, such as driving fast on an empty road, drinking in public, or hiring a prostitute. The difference is partly down to the fact that U.S. police are more competent, in that they have the capability to control the population to a greater extent. But it is also a difference in culture and expectations: Chinese would chaff at many of the indignities that Americans face, such as having our IDs scrutinized when buying liquor or being lectured about driving 35 in a school zone at 2am. In a very real sense, there is more freedom in China than in America.

Ajay writes:

nocountry, I was with you on the first three but I don't think you really believe that minors should be allowed to purchase alcohol, do you? Also, who the hell is pulling you over at 2 AM for going 35? More likely you were driving erratically. :)

Grant writes:

I'd cheer. I believe the richer nations in Europe also have lower fatalities per mile traveled, although their cars are also a lot different (smaller), and their driving tests are a lot more difficult.

Absolute speed isn't really dangerous in a lot of circumstances. Large differentials in speed between cars, excessive tailgating and inappropriate speed for conditions (e.g., low visibility, rain, etc) are IMO the biggest problems. If you've got visibility and no other cars you're running down, doing 150 mph isn't a big deal. It gets boring after a while. Also, raw speed in and of itself rarely causes a negative externality - harm to others.

In Germany, I believe police and traffic cameras do cite people for other sorts of dangerous driving, such as tailgating.

However, I don't think this all means very much. You can see that the US is a police state without looking at traffic: Just look at the number of people in jail.

Curunir writes:

I'd tremble. In keeping with Bryan's pro-elite attitude (I'm very sympathetic), shouldn't we look at the best economics research on the issue of speed limits and fatalities? My favorite of the studies is Ashenfelter and Greenstone :

Our estimates indicate that the adoption of the 65-mph limit increased speeds by approximately 4 percent, or 2.5 mph, and fatality rates by roughly 35 percent. Together, the estimates suggest that about 125,000 hours were saved per lost life. When the time saved is valued at the average hourly wage, the estimates imply that adopting states were willing to accept risks that resulted in a savings of $1.54 million (1997 dollars) per fatality

I suspect moving to, say, 75 mph would result in more fatalities (KE=.5mv^2...), and I personally think $1.54 million is a very low value on my life.

j writes:

It is a cultural difference. No doubt American police is very obstrusive and terrorizes the driving as well as the sexually active populations. On the other hand, Try to litter in Germany. You´ll be sermonized (even attacked ) by a passersby as well later re-educated by the social service. In my opinion, Germany needs no police because the population itself actively and forcefully enforces public norms of behaviour.

China is free but streets are a chaos and people are very bad drivers.

Anecdote: I drove slowly in Germany (looking for directions) and was followed and made to stop TWICE by angry fellow drivers on the road who wanted to check if I was drunk or what. The police are the nice people in Germany. On the other hand, they drive very fast but saw no accidents in Germany.

David N. Welton writes:

No tickets for 'speeding' might be ok, but if there are no cops out there, you get people doing all kinds of genuinely stupid things, and they're never punished for it, because it has no cost until they actually get in an accident, and at that point, there's a big cost that someone else may pay as well.

If you really don't like rules, I dare you to try driving around Naples, in Italy.

Guillaume writes:

Actually, there is a STRONG enforcement in France. The main difference is that police is not running after you, they just send directly the ticket home.
If you

Enforcement is so strong that, France being France, some people are actually blowing radars with explosives

John F. Opie writes:

Hi -

As an American expat who drove extensively in the US and now drives extensively in Germany (BMW 535td, top speed 220km/h), Switzerland and Austria, I think I can add a few words here. :-)

First of all, speeding tickets in Germany can be issued in one of two ways: either a speed trap with cameras and radar snaps a photo of you exceeding the speed limit by a set number of km/h over the limit, which has a set of penalties that are fairly expensive and can escalate to losing your license (drive 200 km/h in a 30 km/h zone will do that), or you are flagged down on the Autobahn for driving recklessly. The key word is recklessly: drive responsibly at high speed and you have no problems, driving like a maniac and you will lose your license and pay some really nasty high fines. There are very, very few mobile speed traps: speed traps are generally fixed and well known, meaning that they work, as people do slow down to avoid having to pay significant fines.

Contrary to popular opinion outside of Germany, there are speed limits on large sections of the Autobahn, plus further limits for construction sites and damaged roadways. Where there are no speed limits, German drivers are, generally speaking, very disciplined, as they are taught to yield the right-of-way when a high-speed vehicle approaches from the rear. There are a fair number of vehicles capable of very high speed on the highway (generally speaking, all vehicles are governor-limited to 250km/h, although true enthusiasts remove such limitations to get their vehicles faster).

But the truth is that there is, generally speaking, much too much traffic for anyone to really spend lots of time at high speed. Last time I got a new car, I actually downgraded the engine in order to get the built-in navigation system, which is excellent. But the downgrade was from an older 3 liter 6 to a newer 2.5 liter 6, only around 40 HP, and the difference in the real world means that I top out at 220km/h, rather than 240km/h.

Now, in both Austria and Switzerland they use the US system of mobile police patrols to identify speeders. Given the draconic financial penalties involved in Austria and Switzerland and the very long delays involved - you can spend up to 3 hours dealing with a speeding ticket and you must pay on the spot - I've learned to drop the speed while driving in both countries to speed limit minus 5km/h, as both countries are notorious for trying to catch cars with German license plates, since they are generally considered to be good prey (think "southern sheriff" attitude).

Now, the real difference, of course, is that in the US you have the right not to incriminate yourself, which, from what I understand, is the reason that you do not have extensive use of automated speed traps that take a picture of your car from the front with the speed, as measured by a radar set-up, factored in. This is necessary to correctly identify the driver (this used to be avoidable and you could beat the rap this way, much more difficult now).

Hence you have the police officers out there on the road looking for people who speed and who are otherwise breaking the law: the presence of those uniformed officers in both marked and unmarked police cars is a direct function of the requirement that an officer of the court provide the evidence that you have broken the law, rather than letting a robot do so.

Be happy for your rights. :-)


aaron writes:

mgroves, I did some calculations back at $3.60 a gallon.

You'd need to be worth less than $5.00 for it to make sense to slow down at 65mph. I figured gas would need to be about $6.88 for me to slow at over 70mph. And that's using a fuel consumption crve that proabably isn't representative of modern passanger cars.

aaron writes:

That should be $5.00 an hour.

enoriverbend writes:

If we pulled 90% of the police off the roads, I would not cheer, but at least be cheered ... somewhat.

To me, the massive over-emphasis on traffic control in most states is a great example of the measurement fallacy: For simplistic management, what gets measured most easily is what matters the most. It's really hard to measure progress on larceny, let alone rarer crimes like murder. It's easy to measure speeding ticket efforts. So of course, speeding gets around 20x more effort than it really deserves.

aaron writes:

If traffic contol and safety were a real concern, cities would have properly times traffic lights and speedlimits. It's practically costless compared to the sallery of police.

Except for the total lack of a minimal established standard, I'm suprised we haven't started suing communities for not managing traffic decently.

larry writes:

I agree that there are too many cops on the roads here in the US. In Michigan, where I now live, there seem to be more cops than I saw in Spain just a few years after Franco died.

Every county, city, and tiny township seems to have its own police force. It's extremely inefficient to duplicate lots of police functions. I think it's sort of viewed as a New Deal type jobs program rather than merely policing.

These cops seem to be mainly interested in 1) extracting money from people going 5-10 mph over the speed limits, and 2) stopping cars for registration violations.

There seems to be no way to stop all this, mainly I think because most people have long been conditioned to think that all laws are for our own good.

aaron writes:

Don't forget the recent seatbelt ticket campaign.

Like I said, I think people should start suing for time and expenses, but first some community needs to demonstrate good traffic management to set a standard (perhaps a community w/ a high proportion of lawyers in the pop would organize a campaign). After that, maybe we'll finally have something productive for all the lawyers to do.

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