A New Vision Zero for St. Paul: Part 5 – Enforcement

Thus far in this series of ideas concerning the path that the city of St. Paul might take towards becoming a Vision Zero city that pays more than token lip-service to the idea, the first three of the “Five E’s” – Evaluation, Engineering, and Education – have provided a framework for studying the issues, re-designing the system in a way that favors better outcomes and limits the range of potential harm, and for teaching people and policy-makers about their roles and responsibilities as users of the transit system. That being said, these suggestions hardly amount to ironclad control, and there is a large degree of moral agency and acts of volition to be accounted for. It is this dimension of human behavior that leads to the fourth “E”: Enforcement.

Prepare to be Judged!


Vision Zero targets dangerous behaviors and choices, and if it seems like drivers face the brunt of the policy changes, it is because the data shows that over 70% of fatalities and injuries involving a motor vehicle are due primarily to dangerous driver choices, such as speeding. In fact, if cars are removed from the equation, cyclists and pedestrians, along with public transit, have already practically achieved Vision Zero.

Many opponents of re-imagining our transit network and its priorities often repeat tired refrains about effectively enforcing the laws we have, rather than making new ones. This attitude, however, displays a certain lack of…vision…on the part of those resorting to it. Enforcement, when it occurs, represents a failure. Therefore, to enforce more is to simply display more symptoms of a failed system, one that neither Evaluates and understands the problem, nor Educates users to help inform their ethical choices, nor Engineers in an ethical manner. Instead, advocates for only the Enforcement side of reform are proposing a continuation of a system in which people are given power they cannot control, placed in situations that tax their limited ability to control it, while operating in a realm encouraging the use of that power beyond responsible levels, and then restraint is apparently supposed to propagate through society after enough people are beat up, and enough bloody bodies left on the street, or metaphorically in jail. This cannot be the answer.

But even the best system does fail, and enforcement is a key component of cleaning up that failure.

Fault and privilege.

There was, perhaps, no greater revolution in the enforcement of driver behavior than the decades-long efforts of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) to eliminate the term “accident” from the lexicon of drunk-driving crashes. The ideas that win first, win best, and calling a crash an “accident” frames the event in the minds of all involved in the machinery of civil justice before they have even consciously contemplated the events. MADD turned “accidents” into “crashes caused by criminal negligence”, and in so doing, altered the entire collective moral mentality of the country, and re-framed the event through an entirely different lens before it even happens. It’s now the idea that wins first, before conscious thought.

Accident” is a term that implies that nothing could have been done, like a freak act of nature, a lightning strike, a occurrence that was so inevitable that to prosecute it is to rail futilely against immutable laws of nature. This is, in fact, what is so attractive about it, a device that people have used since recorded thought. People will often cling to any story or idea that promises to deliver them from the abyssal horror of even attempting to meaningfully comprehend the world, and to pretend that banality and avarice are noble will.

In my background in combat aviation, there are no “accidents”. There are mishaps, and every mishap has at least one Causal Factor. Furthermore, the Causal Factor will be identified, along with any contributing factors, and the information disseminated with complete truthfulness, so that others can learn from the mishap and hopefully avoid it. We do this because the goal, as with Vision Zero, is zero deaths…or as close as can reasonably be achieved. This mindset towards mishap investigation carries into civil aviation as well, because we as a public would never tolerate a 737 falling out of the sky every other day. We would never shrug and declare it an “accident”…a veritable Act of God.

We’re cool with this, right?

Except we do. It would take a 737 falling out of the sky every other day to kill as many Americans as die on our roads, killed by drivers. Every one of those mishaps has a Causal Factor, a place where accountability can be assigned, and enforcement meted out as necessary. But we don’t care.

Enforcement, furthermore, can take another cue from aviation, and lean more heavily towards the long-term or permanent revocation of driving privileges earlier and for far less, and indeed, to treat the possession of a license as a precarious and easily-lost privilege, rather than as a right that is difficult to strip. The operation of a motor vehicle is a terrible responsibility, one with a gravity that is on-par with employing a lethal weapon. The penalty for striking someone with your hand is not the same as using a bat, which in turn is not the same as using a firearm. A comparison with firearms may not be the best choice for equivalence, but even in the gun-crazy culture of this country, firearms carry the barest shreds of restrictions and impediments on them, which is more than we can say for motor vehicles. Cars are powerful lethal weapons, and fatalities that are the result of dangerous choices by drivers should be treated with the same severity as the negligent employment or operation of any other lethal weapon.

Lethal Weapon.

Why do we, as a society, enforce? As a deterrent? As a means of education and training? As a blunt-force method of maintaining a particular hierarchy of social strata? This question is one that is in urgent need of an answer, since Enforcement is the only method of ethical safety and control that we as a culture want to impose on drivers. Signals and infrastructure design have, for decades, favored vehicle and driver throughput in a thought process analogous to the design of plumbing. Any other design philosophy, or burdensome efforts by the “nanny state” to educate drivers, has been characterized almost as a violation of the “freedom” of Americans, a position not-unlike that taken by gun-enthusiasts and Second-Amendment partisans.

The United States is the de facto number 1 nation in the world. We kill people on our roads than at a higher rate than any other developed country, even when corrected for vehicle miles traveled, and it’s because our communities are built around cars, and our laws favor drivers over others. Even considering drivers “equal” is a form of favor, due to the disparity in kinetic power. We also kill people with firearms at a rate that gloriously eclipses the next 22 high-income, industrial nations, and in this show similar failures of social engineering and legal choices. With these levels of Greatness, one wonders why the anxious need to be Great Again. We also lead the world in rates of vehicle ownership, as well as gun ownership.

Obviously, Enforcement alone is a failure.

We also have some logical inconsistencies regarding the ethical dimension of Enforcement, and the assignation of moral agency, vice and virtue, praise and blame. A popular refrain of gun-enthusiasts, when confronted with efforts to regulate and control firearms, is that “guns don’t kill people…people kill people.” Gun-enthusiasts are quick to point out that it is the person, and the person alone, who bears agency in any harm brought about through the use of the weapon, and therefore the only appropriate method of control is deterrence based on Enforcement after-the-fact, despite the utter failure of this approach.

The same could be said for cars.

With vehicles, however, it would seem that people do NOT, in fact, kill people. Reference the above discussion about “accidents” which are so routine they slaughter 30,000 per annum. Furthermore, not only do press depictions utilize the term accident with unfortunate frequency, often the incident is dehumanized further by descriptions in which the victim was “hit by an SUV” or “the truck fled the scene”. The driver gets secondary mention, and prosecutions of vehicles are notoriously difficult. But if people don’t kill people, and vehicles do, then logic clearly dictates that the solution lies heavily in Engineering, and to act otherwise as planners is to abandon all ethical decision making, and all responsibility, for the deaths in our streets. An argument at any level for lack of culpability by drivers is to acknowledge, implicitly, that drivers – human beings – are incapable of operating these powerful and lethal machines without significant Education and Engineering.

If people do kill people, why isn’t speeding prosecuted with the same severity as the owner of a firearm randomly discharging a weapon for fun and excitement in the middle of his/her neighborhood? The speeding, like the weapon discharge, is done merely for enjoyment or because the person simply desired to do so. Those reasons are considered flimsy enough justification for the playful employment of a lethal weapon to hazard legal jeopardy for the perpetrator. Speeding, by contrast, is made easy by our road design, and the penalties are inconveniences…at least for the affluent. For others, it is part of a treadmill of fines, penalties, and interactions with the courts that will cripple their daily existence without actually making a single road safer. If people kill people, why doesn’t every traffic fatality begin with the gravity of a murder investigation, only to be downgraded if evidence permits, rather than the other way around? Why doesn’t every injury begin as the equivalent of attempted murder?

Interestingly, the places that are built almost exclusively around cars – wealthy suburbs – are populated by people who have higher rates of gun-ownership, and who believe in the utter necessity of both; another intersection of social ethics. It is these wealthy suburbanites who would suffer the most by draconian measures to revoke or restrict their driving privileges, and these same suburbanites who oppose efforts to de-prioritize cars in infrastructure design, leaving Enforcement as the only option of control. These same suburbanites, often pro-Enforcement, experience only its lightest touch…and when they do have an “infraction”, it is a quick encounter and a financial nuisance…but their police are quite aggressive in using myriad vehicle regulations to interact with those they identify as not belonging in the car-centric suburb.

Damn, not again!!

The fact is, we as a country enforce a lot. We do so with great enthusiasm, an enthusiasm that hasn’t moved the needle a bit in terms of safety output. Rather, traffic enforcement, and the myriad of codes surrounding the operations of our vehicles, is most often used as a entry point to “legally” harass and subjugate select groups. Driving while Black carries far greater risk, though informal, than driving while distracted, or running a signal, or even striking a pedestrian.

Why do we Enforce? What are we trying to accomplish?

Different laws for different needs.

Which brings us to the fact that laws should be different for users with differing amounts of power and lethal potential, in this case specifically contrasting motor vehicles and cyclists. Overwhelmingly, survey data bear out the fact that drivers break traffic laws simply for time and convenience, where cyclists to do for safety. Drivers, however, respond with angry alacrity to any impugning of their behavior with the retort that cyclists are supposed to follow all traffic rules, and should be penalized the same as they…or at least the same as people like myself wish them to be.

The irony is that drivers deflect blame…and responsibility…towards cyclists, and call for absolute equal treatment when Enforcement is discussed, but they certainly don’t want to treat cyclists as equals when it comes to rights and privileges. Drivers believe, by and large, that cyclists have FEWER rights and privileges, due to their slower speed (read: lack of lethal power and potential) and should yield the road in all cases to drivers. Therefore, drivers will “right hook” cyclists, crowd them at lights and signals, yell at them, swerve menacingly towards them, pass them with very little space…all maneuvers and activities that drivers would never do to other drivers, simply because when behind the wheel of a car they believe in nothing more than might-makes-right, and a war of all-against-all. If drivers truly believed in equality under law, with the expectation that cyclists strictly comply with all vehicle laws, then the logical consequence would be an elimination of bike lanes, and a conversion of all roads into truly shared-spaces, wherein vehicles must yield the entire lane to cyclists, pass safely and only by exception, and otherwise wait like civilized beings. The fact that this is not considered a reasonable option is why drivers should be the focus of Enforcement.

Many drivers, a population with an almost allergic reaction to responsibility, also have a tendency to blame pedestrians for their deaths, a sentiment often shared by municipalities, and one that is only valid if the ethics of “might-makes-right” are how we truly have chosen to order our society. That is, that the weak have the moral duty to move aside for the powerful, and if they fail to do so, their trampling is their own fault. The fact that more than 500 children under the age of 7 are killed annually by drivers should end this line of reasoning forever…but it doesn’t.

Crime and Punishment

If we implemented the other components of Vision Zero, and created a community that was not only less car-centric, but also one in which it simply wasn’t as possible to do harm with a motor vehicle, maybe we could enforce better. Maybe, with less of a reliance on widespread, petty, and all-encompassing Enforcement, real progress could also be made not only towards Enforcement that is life, responsibility, and safety focused, but also Enforcement that isn’t used as a means of hierarchy maintenance. Maybe in this way, streets that are more just and equitable can be a small step towards a society that is more just and equitable.

Enforcement is a critical component of Vision Zero…but that doesn’t mean more Enforcement. Quite the contrary, if the Five “E’s” are implemented successfully, Enforcement can hopefully happen less than it does now, but with greater effect and moral judgment when it does.

Michael Daigh

About Michael Daigh

You might have seen Michael Daigh riding his bike around the Twin Cities metro. He resides in St. Paul, but only since 2015, so his opinions don't count. Michael holds an MA in History, and is the author of the book: "John Brown in Memory and Myth". He is also a decorated fighter pilot.