A Wink And A Nod—Beliefs, Laws, and Turning Right On Red (Part II)

A Wink And A Nod—Teaching Our Kids To Be Criminals (Part I) is here.

In a discussion of plans for an intersection that some of us are trying to make more pedestrian and bicycle friendly, the traffic engineer for the project said that she could add some no-turn-on-red signs to help alleviate the quite dangerous right-hook—when drivers turn right on red without looking for pedestrians and bicyclists. However, she also qualified this with the reality that this is only semi-effective as many drivers will ignore the sign and turn on red anyway.

Throughout most of U.S. history only a very small minority of our population was ever on the wrong side of the law.  Today, only a very small minority of us are not on the wrong side of the law.

Perhaps this isn’t that big of a deal. After all, most of the laws we flaunt aren’t that important anyway. Right?

So, if we don’t obey every law, then which laws do we obey? Which are important? Not stopping completely at a stop sign? Not stopping at a red light? Before making a right-on-red? Driving 5 mph over the speed limit? 10 mph over? 25 mph over? Maybe it’s OK to go 20% over the speed limit? Or drive over the speed limit on motorways but not on residential streets? How OK is it to drink alcohol before we’re 21? Or smoke a joint? Or get in on the office football pool?

What we need is common consensus on which laws we obey and which we don’t!

Reasonably Human

The foundation of our collective law breaking is this: we don’t obey laws, we obey our beliefs. What we see as law-abiding in others is really just their beliefs intersecting with our laws.

If we don’t believe in a law and obeying that law is very inconvenient, we don’t obey it. Drive on any of our motorways and you’ll see this in action. Or perhaps, think back to your own criminal drinking or toking in high school or university.

The most critical belief though, is in our system of laws and law enforcement themselves. When we have little regard for, and so routinely flaunt, so many different laws, we lose our belief in the very foundation of law-abiding. Instead of the rare exception, law-breaking becomes normal. Instead of thinking that we should obey laws, we instead just give some consideration to whether we’ll be caught.

In a law-abiding society people default to obeying laws, because they believe in our system of laws. But no longer. A No-Turn-On-Red doesn’t mean no turn on red, but make sure no cops are around before turning on red.

Socially-acceptable-law-breaking has not been the norm throughout U.S. history. We have normalized it. This normalizing began with Anthony Comstock, peaked with alcohol prohibition, and has plateaued with our traffic and vice laws that are nearly meaningless.

Most people, I think, don’t want to be law breakers, even of traffic laws. But bad laws (and bad street design) strongly encourage it. And, it’s a very slippery slope.

It’s all fine and good to just say ‘people shouldn’t break laws’. But they will. And once they become law-breakers they are more likely to break other laws. The line has been crossed. It’s like the guy who, when a gal turned down his offer of $50 for sex, then offered $10,00, which she gladly accepted. He then offered $300 which she refused screaming “who do you think I am, a whore?”. To which he replied “we’ve already determined that, now we’re just negotiating price.”

Once we’re criminals, particularly if we’ve crossed the line so many times we’ve worn it down to nothing, we have to determine how much of criminals we’ll be. And that’s a big fat wide bit of grey mush.

While Charles Marohn at StrongTowns may make a distinction in which laws he does and doesn’t obey that we agree with, others will not make such desirable distinctions. They’ll draw the line differently. And this makes our roads and streets more dangerous. On numerous levels.

Instead of a common consensus defined by our laws, we each follow our own beliefs because we no longer regard our laws themselves as anything worthy of obeying.

How can we tell drivers that we want them to draw the line somewhere before the laws about turning-on-red? Maybe some little signs that say ‘We Really Mean It This Time’ on the most important No-Turn-On-Red signs. Which are the most important? How can we tell our kids that though everyone around them is breaking a law, they shouldn’t?

Our laws also lose their social force.  In ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’, Jane Jacobs makes a great point about how ‘eyes on the street’ prevent crime. How much less effective though, if those eyes aren’t sure which laws are to be obeyed and which not? If those eyes aren’t sure if others will support them if they step in to some situation?


Our system of laws is meant to codify our common beliefs. Our laws must be able to stand on our beliefs. If a law cannot stand on the beliefs of nearly 100% of our population and thus naturally be obeyed by nearly 100%, it may not be a good law.

Many of our laws that are not supported by our commonly-held beliefs are ineffectual in accomplishing their intended purpose, and worse, undermine our entire system of laws. This results in a more dangerous world for us and our children.

Part III: A Safe Environment, Not Just A Safe Speed.

Walker Angell

About Walker Angell

Walker Angell is a writer who focuses mostly on social and cultural comparisons of the U.S. and Europe. He occasionally blogs at localmile.org, a blog focused on everyday bicycling and local infrastructure for people who don’t have a chamois in their shorts. And on twitter @LocalMileMN