Leo Morris: No right turn on red — maybe


As someone with libertarian instincts, I’ve always considered traffic regulations to be the quintessence of the law’s potential.

The rules are uncomplicated and well-known. They do not judge why we take our trips or whence we came and where we are going. They exist solely to keep us as safe on the road as possible, especially to protect the innocent from the mistakes of the careless and the indifference of the arrogant.

We all give our implied consent to abide by the rules of the road when we accept a driver’s license, so there’s no question that all are bound by them. The officers on the front line have some discretion to exercise independent judgment — to give out a warning citation instead of a speeding ticket, for example — but not enough to invite widespread corruption.

Elegant, pragmatic, effective. If all of our laws were designed around those principles, we’d have a much saner society.

But leave it to the “no government is enough government” members of the Bloomington City Council to take something pure and simple and complicate it beyond all recognition.

The regulation in question is a state law allowing vehicles to make a right turn against a red traffic signal “if the way is clear from oncoming traffic and there is no sign prohibiting it.” Left on red also is allowed from one one-way street to another with the same provisos.

Note the “if the way is clear” admonition. If you turn on red and have an accident, you’re very likely liable. You have not been relieved of the responsibility to drive safely.

Bloomington, however, chose to focus on the “if there is no sign prohibiting it” part. Because it has so many downtown streets swarming with pedestrians and bicyclists, largely from Indiana University, the city council came up with a list of intersections where turning on red is illegal.

Eighty-two of them.

Yes, 82. Though the city has erected signs at all of them, there is apparently widespread confusion among drivers, which is creating bottlenecks at many intersections, some at which it is difficult to make a turn of any kind. The city is responding with more visible signs and a news release listing all of the forbidden intersections.

Perhaps the news release will help motorists with the several hours it will take them to plan a trip through downtown Bloomington. Or perhaps they will just give up on going there at all, which might have been the goal in the first place. (When I am in a conspiracy mode, I’m convinced that is the whole point of roundabouts.)

Common sense should dictate that a rule with 82 exceptions is not really a rule. The city would be better off just announcing at all city limits that “turn on red” is not allowed in Bloomington. Perhaps right below the sign announcing that “anti-marijuana laws are not enforced in this city.”

It is not stressed enough these days, but the law must be arbitrary. That’s the only way it works. We cannot expect officials to determine on a case-by-case basis whether, for example, some people are mature enough to drink at age 15 and some are not at age 30. So a “reasonable” age is arrived at, and a line is drawn.

When the laws draw bold, clear lines between the forbidden and the permitted, it keeps society together. Those lines not only protect us from the worst in each other. They let us know day in and day out what is expected of us, and we must be assured that they apply to all of us all of the time equally.

Of all of the nonsense churned out in the 1960s — and heaven knows there was a mountain of it — the absolute dumbest was the notion that “you can’t legislate morality.”

But that is precisely and specifically what the law does attempt to do. Morality is our struggle to do good by behaving properly and prevent harm by avoiding improper behavior. As many observers have noted — often to great excess — actions that are deemed good or bad change over time and throughout cultures. We struggle with defining them and living up to them.

The best we can do as a society is try to abide the rules of good and bad behavior we can agree on and put them down in black and white. Those are the laws that become our rules of the road in life.

And the more exceptions to the rule, the more the rule itself is open to debate. On or off the road.

Leo Morris, columnist for Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier State Press Association’s award for best editorial writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at [email protected].

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