Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The police presence paradox

Tomorrow morning, I'm embarking upon a 4200 mile road trip to California and back, with a few worthwhile diversions along the way to visit friends whom I have not seen in quite some time. The espoused purpose of the trip is to assist my older brother and his wife in packing and moving, though of course I'm more interested in its social and scenic aspects. (I'm also hoping to finally see the Grand Canyon while I'm out West.)

In light of this road trip, I will raise a certain rumination of mine: I believe that the presence of recognizable police cars acutely increases the likelihood of unsafe driving or an accident.

The chances are good that you have been involved in a traffic back-up that had no logical reason to exist. After minutes or miles of waiting or driving bumper to bumper at 5mph on an interstate, you finally reach daylight and are able to resume the legal (or "legal-plus" speed) without seeing any obstruction that should have caused such a delay. In my own experiences, the explication for these inexplicable back-ups is just ridiculous: a huge traffic back-up due purely to drivers rubbernecking, staring at an accident entirely on the other side of the median, for example. This should serve as an important illustration of the capacity of distraction or interest in an extraneous visual to change one's driving habits in the moment, even when the source of distraction bears no relevance to the actions at hand.

Every observant driver will notice a marked police car in his or her presence. Even a legal driver--that is, a driver abiding by every law of the road--will take notice, as no one wants to get pulled over. I speak as an historically hasty driver, of course, and one must understand and critique my personal psychology from this perspective, but with that said, even when I am very consciously driving legally, I find myself taking my eye off the road to watch the police car in front of me and disappearing behind me in my rearview mirror, to watch my speed, to watch anything but the road in front of me--ostensibly becoming overly cautious with regard to the police car, but in reality driving more unsafely. Oftentimes, I instinctively tap my breaks to needlessly reduce my already-legal speed, "just in case." In other words, the sight of a police car changes my driving behavior immediately and, for all intents and purposes, erratically and inexplicably, for any car behind me who may need to react to my sudden changes. I use myself as an example, but I'm confident that almost any driver can either remember or recognize such situations when they have either behaved this way or had to respond to someone who was. The presence of a police car, in other words, can be said to cause a ripple in the normalcy of the flow of traffic, and a ripple in normalcy surely must produce conditions favorable to accidents. If a study were designed and conducted to analyze this, I would love to see the findings.

Of course, I recognize that the intangible yet omnipresent threat of traffic enforcement via police surely must rein in the more malignant motorists, but I do indeed believe that the actual perceived presence of the police must heighten the risk to those on the roads, for reasons mentioned and alluded to above.

Currently listening to: "Soul Singer in the Session Band" by Bright Eyes
Previous activity: Watching the worthless news
Next thing on the agenda: Sleeping, so I can hit the highway bright and early

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