“Americans have made the worst botch of government in the recorded history of the world.” So declared Harvard president Charles W. Eliot in 1910, citing “the daily report of automobile accidents” in the United States. “In no other civilized land could you find such a record of official incompetence or indifference,” Eliot concluded.
The solution was a new institution, the traffic court, which in turn brought new forms of incompetence and indifference. Witness the recent report on Philadelphia’s own traffic court, which found “two tracks of justice”: one for the “connected” and the other for everyone else.
In the dance of dishonesty, though, it takes two to tango: you can’t have crooked officials without citizens who sway them off the straight and narrow. For almost a century, Americans have bribed, begged, and wheedled their way out of traffic tickets. People who never think of evading other kinds of justice will eagerly do so when their automobiles are involved.
And that reflects our almost mystical relationship to these machines, which symbolize individual mobility and freedom. We love to drive our cars, and we hate it when anyone else tells us how to do it.
By 1926, there was already one car for every six Americans; the ratio in Great Britain was one to 55, and Germany’s was one to 193. As one American motorist declared, driving made him feel like“the most independent and absolute monarch locomotion ever produced.”
But he also had to share the road with other drivers, all equally proud of their own power and prerogatives. In 1910, when Charles Eliot complained about auto accidents, 1,599 Americans died in them. By 1920, the number climbed to 12,000; and 10 years after that, it topped 30,000.
In response, state and municipal governments established speed limits and other traffic rules. They also set up special courts to enforce the new regulations, setting the stage for a conflict that has never really gone away.
As early as 1910, motorists complained that traffic rules were “taking all the joys out of motoring.” In 1931, a study of New Jersey drivers found that four-fifths of them routinely flouted the law.
They also mocked traffic-court judges, who responded in kind. One judge let violators roll dice to determine their fines; another accidentally convicted a witness instead of the defendant; and a third broke into loud laughter when a defendant used the term “exhilarator” instead of “accelerator,” which eventually led the mirthful judge to suspend the offender’s sentence.
“You have as much chance of getting justice in a traffic court as a smoke ring has of making a loop over the nose of the man in the moon,” one critic observed in 1932. “Traffic court is a madhouse; a disgrace to any civilized community.”
You’ll find the same heated response to Philadelphia’s latest traffic-court scandal, with a new twist: this could only happen in Philadelphia. We have an especially corrupt civic culture, the argument goes, so we have a special imperative to reform.
Nonsense. Nationwide, over 50 percent of contested speeding tickets result in dismissal or a reduced fine. And if you think that’s because all of these defendants were innocent or worthy of leniency, well, I’ve got a freeway bridge to sell you.
In 2003, a California judge and former detective were indicted for fixing tickets on behalf of two professional sports teams. The following year, a Louisiana police department was accused of giving“special consideration” to 9,000 traffic violators. And just last year, in a New York ticket-fixing scandal, a policeman was charged with trying to arrange the murder of one of the witnesses against him.
Nor can we expect “reform” to make much of a difference. In Philadelphia, the scandal has renewed demands that all members of the court also be members of the bar. But who’s to say that a lawyer would be any less susceptible to extra-legal pressure? And why would we expect this pressure to abate, when so many drivers continue to believe that they’re above the law?
The real problem is our commitment to driving, as a rite of passage and a right unto itself. “It was like sheer magic,” wrote the novelist Sinclair Lewis in 1919, describing his first auto experiences. “Nothing could ever halt us; we flew, as in a dream.” Until Americans awaken from the dream of unchecked freedom on the roads, our traffic courts will remain a nightmare. They are the price we pay for the car culture we created.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University and lives in Narberth. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press).