I was riding shotgun in a CHP unit with Sgt. C.B. Farnsworth.
We were returning to Roseville from the CHP Academy in Bryte in Yolo County where I did a story and photo on the CHP’s new Sacramento helicopter unit.
It was 1980, six years after the Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act was signed at the height of the OPEC oil embargo lowering the speed limit on all interstate freeways and other highways that received federal funding to 55 mph.
We were approaching the point near Madison Avenue where Interstate 80 merges with Business 80 creating eight lanes of traffic heading eastward for just over a mile.
I had asked the sergeant a minute earlier why you’d often spot CHP units without red lights or sirens exceeding the posted 55 mph speed limit on freeways. He was driving 62 mph at the time.
As we reached the merge, the sergeant took his foot off the gas and dropped to 55 mph.
Within seconds vehicles in all eight lanes not only slowed down, but what had been free flowing traffic suddenly took on the characteristics of a bumper-to-bumper rolling traffic jam moving at 55 mph.
“That’s why,” he said. “If we drove at 55 mph all the time it would seriously impede the flow of traffic.”
By the time we crossed beneath Madison Avenue he was back up to 62 mph. The traffic back-up began to untangle.
That day drove home two points. The first is law enforcement for a variety of sound reasons doesn’t enforce traffic laws in a rigid fashion. And the second, and most important, law enforcement presence on our freeways, highways, and streets is an effective way to get people to comply with traffic laws that in turn makes our streets safer even if tickets aren’t issued.
The demonstration that lasted all of 90 seconds 41 years ago underlines the absurdity and foolishness of the latest movement to neuter law enforcement by demanding that police get out of traffic enforcement.
The demand stems from situations where traffic stops have led to the shooting and sometimes deaths of motorists of which a large portion are Blacks.
There is little doubt that there are serious policing issues of which some involve bad judgment, rapidly involving situations, or simply men or women who have no business being police officers.
One rogue officer is one too many. But to paint all officers with the same broad brush is no more distasteful than using profiling to justify casting a wide net that when applied snares the innocent with those that might be guilty.
It is not OK to kill off dolphins to make it easier to snare tuna.
That said, does anyone in their right mind honesty believe leaving traffic enforcement to unarmed civilian traffic agents — basically glorified meter maids — or technology is a wise move?
It would lead to road anarchy. If anyone doubts that they are forgetting that the most likely “weapon” for someone to take another’s life or cause serious injury or financial loss is not at the business end of a gun but from a two-ton vehicle.
Oakland Police were instructed to reduce their traffic enforcement sharply after research by Stanford University accused the department of racial profiling.
The directive flew in the face of what city leaders knew — almost 60 percent of Oakland’s fatalities and serious injuries take place on just six percent of the city’s streets that are almost all in minority neighborhoods.
An equity study of Oakland showed Blacks in the city are twice as likely to get killed or seriously injured in traffic accidents. And when it came to pedestrian deaths, the victims are three times more likely to be Black.
Traffic deaths increased 22 percent last year in Oakland after police started following the directive issued in the aftermath of the Stanford report.
Last month, Oakland Councilman Loren Taylor was quoted decrying the “general lawlessness and a lack of accountability for driving however you want in the city.”
Does anyone think those that push the limit — regardless of ethnicity, creed, or social-economic status — are going to pull over for unarmed civilian traffic agents so they can be issued a ticket or at least a warning?
As for red light enforcement, aside from some legal challenges that center on calibration and such, they have a limited impact. Over time when drivers are acutely aware they are there, compliance with red lights goes up. But as cities that have deployed red light cameras have learned it does not increase compliance at intersections without the technology.
When it comes to traffic enforcement, it works most effectively on the vast majority of drivers that need a reminder that someone might be watching in order for them to follow the rules most of the time. That is where traffic enforcement is the most effective in getting compliance.
That leaves two small groups. Those who can proclaim they always — or close to it — comply with traffic laws without running the risk of their noses going Pinocchio and those that are arrogant self-centered drivers.
It is the latter where many career criminals and violent people fall that may not be smart enough not to attract attention to their selves as they drive.
Back in 1980 I was driving a bright yellow Chevy Monza. It was a color that stuck out at the time but not as much as bright red cars.
Drivers of red cars often lamented they were targeted by the CHP for speeding.
Not realizing it at the time I basically asked the sergeant whether they were “profiling” red car drivers given based on antidotal evidence they seemed to get pulled over more often.
He told me to do an experiment. The next time I was in a large parking lot to scan the vehicles quickly and note what caught my eye.
When I did, the red cars stuck out like a sore thumb from the sea of more drab colors.
His point was simple. The eye catches what sticks out the most from the background. You’re drawn to the bright red car not because it is different but because it stands out. A brown AMC Pacer is different than a brown Chevy Nova but a candy apple red AMC Pacer stands out more than a brown Chevy Nova.
And if that candy apple red Pacer is speeding it will really stick out.
Equating traffic enforcement to the “broken window theory” of policing gone rogue is disingenuous.
Aggressive red light runners, stop sign runners that make no pretense of slowing down, drivers who flip off pedestrians as they cut them off midway across crosswalk, and those who can get ticketed by meeting the legal definition of excessive speed are a serious public safety menace.
They are not going to pay heed to a civilian traffic agent just like they are not going to heed etiquette lessons from Judith “Miss Manners” Martin.
We need to address what are serious policing issues of which most likely are rooted in deep-seated impressions that exist for valid reasons on both sides.
What we don’t need to do is tear down the entire law enforcement model that arguably works as it is supposed to at least 90 percent, if not more of the time.