Upstate Speed Traps- Banditry or Survival?

We have all seen it, though perhaps not been prey to it: the spot on the highway off-ramp or just at the edge of the incorporated village where the speed limit abruptly drops and the local police sit awaiting oblivious out-of-towners. I myself have run afoul of these predicaments twice: once late at night in Ellenville in the Catskills and another time near Old Forge. Lately, I have noticed a growing concern in some quarters (here, here) over speed traps and, in particular a handful of small rural communities who have been found to be more or less funding the local budget with speeding revenues.

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 out

this 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


Natalie said...

A adjective
1 particularistic
relating to particularism (exclusive interest in one group or class or
sect etc.); "a particularistic-seeming statement"

Jesse said...

Is particularistic a technical term? I'm sorry if it is, I hang out with anthropology graduate students all day and some times I forget that we can make up a language of our own at times.

joe said...

ha, particularist, straight outta 'I'm a boring intellectual'. the best part is your response to Natalie may look like 'a particularist-seeming statement' to some.

Yo, speed traps and traffic situations are the most overt examples of the benthamite panopticon of state power. Locals and people who drive the same highways/roads will routinely slow down at certain points in fear of state power even when the trooper is usually not there.

There are plenty of articles around about how Staties are being forced to give people tickets when they pull them over now. Mostly because a. they didn't want to do the paperwork and be dicks giving peep speeding tickets in the middle of nowhere, b. the revenue from traffic violations isn't enough to fund the traffic courts themselves. So the story was directly about controlling sections of the big and country highways deemed problematic. The only reason they're being forced to give tickets now is cuz they need to put some fear back into the yorkies.

Folks in the inner city have their mini panopticon of state control which is pretty harsh compared to the panoptic eye on the folks in the country and suburbs. basically, you're whiney if you're complaining about getting a ticket in center lisle late at night after a wiccan festival, when racial profiling is pretty serious in most parts of the country and immediately dangerous in big cities.

Natalie said...

I was actually just testing the commenting feature (it wasn't working the other day) and I didn't know what particularistic meant. Likewise, I didn't know what a panopticon was, until now! Thanks Joe!

christyanthemum said...

Great topic! Whenever I have to go to Watertown or Syracuse (or beyond), from St. Lawrence Co., I'm careful to WATCH OUT for these traps in Antwerp and Philadelphia, NY! Suddenly, you have to go 30mph for like 1/2 a mile?! It seems so sneaky! But I have to admit, I see the "fund raising" side of the issue. (My husband and I call them “fund raisers”). Small rural towns in Northern NY have to fight like hell to survive and I can honestly say that I've snickered a few times when I've seen "Out-of-Towners" pulled over by the likes of the Philly PD. :) And, highway budgets for small towns up here are always in need of more money--think of the plowing, the salt, the sand, etc... It's only fair that these towns do whatever they can... That said, I'm all for openness in these matters. Yeah, it sucks to slow down for these speed traps, but do you really need to fly through small towns at 65? Just chill for a little bit and look at the scenery (or rural decay?). And tell everyone you know where these speed traps are! After all, you could be at a random road block/check point with Troopers or Border Patrol sniffing around for marijuana—Oops, I mean, illegal immigrants and terrorists. (Hey, why not do a post/feature on the proliferation of check points in the North Country/Upstate NY?)

Joe said...

Yo that's actually a good idea, harasta why haven't you done an article on the change in border security in northern NY and around niagara?

I also tend to believe that stories like New Rome, Ohio are probably urban legends. How can you fund a police dept., traffic court, and probably highway dept. for one stretch of road and a tiny town on speeding tickets?

the Sharif don't like that. First he takes me out to a show that cost 25 dollars, now he's trying to talk about some town in ohio on my source for upstate info.

Jesse said...

Joe- excellent point about the panopticon.

For those of you not familiar with the idea, it was a fictional prison created by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham. His idea was that prisoners would be aware that there was observation going on, but were never sure exactly when they were being observed and when not. The idea is that they then have to always act as if they were being observed...because they just might be. It's a powerful concept that (since Bentham's time in the 1700s) has been applied to many situations. Open surveillance devices that we're never sure are being used or not appear all over our society (security cameras are the best example, but roadside stops are also) and can have a powerfuly dampening effect upon the liberty of action that we allow for ourselves. Subtle controls.

I haven't written about border surveillance because, honestly, I don't know much about it. If someone knows more than me or has a strong interest in it, don't hesitate to write it up and send it in. Our submission guidelines (very simple) are here.

Also, I don't know about New Rome, Ohio being an urban legend. Check out http://www.newromesucks.com/, pretty elaborate hoax. Of course, so is Indian Lake, but this is a bit different (the protest pictures and local news stories for instance). Sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction.

Mrs Mecomber said...

Great article. Just a little thing-- you'd said: "In general, young people (especially men) and minorities tend to be given disproportionate numbers of tickets..."

My husband worked for an insurance company, and it is a fact that young people (esp. men), older men, and minorities drive more recklessly and faster than women, especially women with children. I think this accounts for the feeling that men seem to be "targeted" for speeding violations-- they drive faster, by a phenomonal rate. Just thought you'd want to know...

Buckle up, America! Coming soon-- crash helmets!

Jesse said...

Mrs. Mecomber,
I'm not going to challenge your statement because I don't have the facts to back up either side (granted you're probably right that young men in particular drive fast as a group). Though, please note that I did not use the word "targeted" (which you place in quotation). However, regardless of whether there is a prejudicial bias or the cause is that these groups drive faster, my point was that these two groups (young people and minorities) are not the cause of the economic factors that push these towns into highway "fund-raising" and are themselves often the victims of these same forces. My point is that if were looking for an ethical redistribution of wealth, this is problematic in the whom it targets

NYCO said...

Re the Panopticon: There was a story in the NYT recently about how Great Britain is the most traffic-surveilled (is THAT a word?) nation on the planet. And how motorists and citizens take it upon themselves to smash the observation cameras.

NYCO said...

Err... make that the U.K. "Great Britain" is an island, not a nation...