Thursday, January 27, 2011

When Words Speak Louder than Actions

Most laws are made after people abuse privileges.

Think about it. When did most traffic laws start piling up? After people drove their horseless carriages recklessly.

Oddly enough, however - and perhaps befitting the entrepreneurial spirit of America, it wasn't a bureaucrat who first recognized the need for driving regulations, but a private citizen. In fact, he's probably one of the most important people in America's car culture history that you've never heard of.

Does Civility Benefit Commerce?

In 1909, pioneering New York City businessman William Eno published the world's first rules and regulations for drivers. Eno invented the stop sign, the one-way street, and the pedestrian crosswalk, among other innovations that have become ubiquitous in the modern driving experience. Eno recognized that as streets became even more chaotic with the advent of the automobile, stricter procedures and new safety elements needed to be established so commerce could continue to flourish.

Amazing, huh?

The fact that Eno also wrote the first traffic violations guidebook for the New York City Police Department shouldn't be held against him by today's drivers, most of whom have cringed at the telltale flashing of emergency lights in their rear-view mirror.

Still, to think: all of our traffic laws have come from one enterprising businessman's desire to protect people and minimize congestion so private industry could function more efficiently. Kinda puts rules and regulations into perspective, doesn't it?

Fun Before the Thaw

Of course, many people think laws governing behavior are entirely punitive. Consider, for example, some irate snowmobilers in Upstate New York. They've become indignant over a law enforcement sweep which netted 45 citations in one day for various infractions of snowmobile rules.

Back in the mists of time, during my childhood, we lived in a tiny village on the north shore of Oneida Lake, north of Syracuse. It's the largest lake within the state, 22 miles long and up to five miles wide. Despite its surface area, however, Oneida Lake is relatively shallow, which means during the frigid winters, it seems to practically freeze solid. People who venture out across it on motorized vehicles, including snowmobiles, really only risk falling in if it's early or late in the ice fishing season.

Invariably, somebody would get injured out on the lake. Or, one of their "sleds," as they call their snowmobiles, would fall into the lake. One winter, I even recall somebody's pickup truck sinking through the thinning late-season ice.

In addition, although it might seem counter-intuitive, the buzzing whine of snowmobile exhaust systems gets amplified out on the wind-swept ice, particularly since you don't ever hear anything else in the otherwise snow-packed stillness. And particularly when sled owners affix aftermarket enhancements to their machines to make them go faster.

Since this winter has been unusually harsh in the Northeast, snowmobilers have been making a nuisance of themselves out on the lake, disturbing homeowners along the shore. Particularly those ardent enthusiasts who think they can act with impunity.

One of the reasons people like to snowmobile on top of a frozen lake should be obvious: it's wide open. You can quickly become seduced into believing you can do whatever you please in such a vast expanse.

Well, actually, you can't, of course. You've got people out on the ice who, for some reason, derive considerable pleasure from sitting on a sprawling ice sheet, peering over a little hole, trying to fish. You've got other people on their snowmobiles, some of whom may be even less cautious than you. And chances are, all of you are miles from the closest point at which an ambulance can get to you in case you need one.

So some local cops and the state parks police ventured out onto the ice and discovered a variety of infractions by the winter sports enthusiasts.

According to Syracuse.com, 14 tickets were issued for equipment violations, including aftermarket mufflers designed to make snowmobiles louder. Cops issued 11 tickets for registration violations, 11 for uninsured snowmobiles, and four for speeding. Perhaps it's a good thing only three snowmobilers were ticketed for being drunk.

Rules and Bad Apples

Inevitably, the story generated a considerable response from visitors to Syracuse.com, quickly filling up seven pages. Most people who posted their opinions sided with law enforcement and how a few bad apples usually end up ruining everybody's fun. Rules are rules, and generally, they exist for a reason.

But then, the bad apples themselves came out of the woodwork, posting blather mostly about how rules and regulations have sapped all the fun out of life. About how cops writing tickets has become all about revenue generation. And how people who whine all the time are the ones responsible for ruining everybody's fun.

Indeed, the snowmobilers who sided with their ticketed brethren do have a point: restrictions to most activities usually aren't enjoyable. I don't even like snowmobiles, and I can agree with them on that one.

But you can't deny that most laws are made after people abuse privileges. When New York City's William Eno saw how unwilling most newly-christened operators of automobiles were to abide by simple graces of civility, he saw that somebody needed to craft some guidelines for how to operate these new contraptions in urban areas.

Obviously, enough drivers were rude enough to, in effect, act on behalf of all drivers to force all of them - and, by extension, you and me - to abide by a strict standard of roadway behavior. And unfortunately, as things often do in bureaucracies, rules began piling up faster than Henry Ford could churn out Model T's.

That's a really sad thing about human behavior: we tend to forget about consequences. We tend to act out of selfish impulses, and before too long, we end up being smothered in regulations which actually may be more punitive than if we had simply been a little more patient, a little more cautious, a little less greedy to begin with. This has become the broader story of Wall Street, and of something as regional as snowmobiling.

Somebody once said that actions speak louder than words.

And that's true - unless those actions result in a new set of rules.

Then the rules usually speak for themselves. And often, it's not a pretty sound.
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