In a sense, these communities are akin to highway bandits raiding passing caravans. Perhaps a better analogy would be to the petty states along the old Silk Road that used to press travelers for tolls or bribes (depending on your perspective). In either case, peripheral communities that would otherwise gain little from the wealth traveling through their midst turn to force to extract their cut.
The problem, however, is more complex than the handful of gross cases (such as the town of 60 that had 14 police officers entirely funded through traffic violations) and comparisons to bandits of old reveals. On one hand, it is possible to view the problem as the case of small towns struggling to meet the needs of their citizens in an era where they are increasingly squeezed by budgets and politics determined in far-off cities who desperately turn to travelers from those same cities to make ends meet; Robin Hood wears a blue uniform. The alternative view is summed up by the creedo statement of the anti-speed trap site New Rome Sucks:
We are the people who have been chewed up by the system and left for dead. Countless State, County, City, and Township legal systems financially and mentally abuse Us for the sole purpose of revenue generation and we have no way to defend ourselves other than to unite and fight. Billions of dollars are sucked from us yearly by this form of "protection" even though the punishment never deters the crime. The fine is just a bribe so they don't take away our "privilege" of driving. We have no control over the system. We have no justice in the system.
The problem is further complicated by the fact that the people pulled over are often themselves disempowered. In general, young people (especially men) and minorities tend to be given disproportionate numbers of tickets (check outthis study in Boston). While it is true that locals are often able to avoid speed traps through simple local knowledge and possible social ties to the officers, Out-Of-Towners are hardly a homogenous group.
However, there could be a counter argument that in some cases minor fines spread out across many travelers can do more social good in helping impoverished towns than the fine does harm to the travelers. It is one thing to pay for more police officers to write more tickets and another thing all together to pay for clinics, after-school activities and senior nutrition that would be otherwise unavailable.
What does a community do when the traffic that once passed through it is diverted onto the superhighways, when trade withers up? Does a small community that maintains a public road through it have the right to ask for thru-travelers to contribute to the maintenance? These are the questions that were raised generations ago when the Silk Road merchants wandered through Central Asia and they are still relevant today. Do I blame a small, struggling rural community for using all the tools in their repertoire? I may curse my luck but I personally don’t hold a grudge over it—that is, of course, my own take on the matter.
I believe that what we have in the end is a highly particularistic ethical situation, one that is fitting more for discussion in local communities themselves. However, there is a broader question for us Upstaters that the speed trap dilemma raises that is lost in the call for state- or nation-wide crackdowns: what are the forces that cause rural communities to turn to legal banditry for survival? Until we begin to approach the complex difficulties created by a federal government increasingly signing off its expenses to the states, states like our own that are bloated, inefficient and corrupt and local governments that themselves are often incomprehensibly organized and largely ignored, we will never be able to come up with laws that solve the problem.-Posted by Jesse