Day after day in Warren, Mich., people wait in a long line to pay traffic fines. Many are there because police say they didn’t come to a full stop at a stop sign. Often the policeman saying that is Officer David Kanapsky.
On last week’s "20/20," you heard a motorist in court insist that she did come to a complete stop. The judge replied, as judges there often do: "I find Officer Kanapsky’s testimony to be credible. He is an unbiased witness."
But the officer is not really unbiased. The more tickets he writes, the more overtime he gets. Last year, Kanapsky spent so much time in court he increased his pay by $21,000.
Rolling through a stop sign in Michigan puts two points on your driving record. That hikes your car insurance premium. Fighting the ticket could cost even more. So to avoid the points and legal fees, most people plead guilty to a lesser offense: impeding traffic. The court sounds like an assembly line, " … no points … $135 … "
Last year, the town made half a million dollars from such fines. Some drivers told us it "seems like a moneymaking scam.
I don’t know if that’s true, but when some angry motorists complained to Heather Catallo, reporter for Detroit’s ABC affiliate, she took her cameras out to see if the cops themselves stopped at the stop signs. Most didn’t.
Her expose caused a ruckus in town. The mayor hired a new police commissioner, who told me the cops might have been on emergency calls. "They don’t necessarily have to have their lights and sirens on," Commissioner William Dwyer said.
I told him the tape showed police cars rolling through stop signs on the way back to the police station.
"Did some officers make mistakes? Perhaps so," he said.
Dwyer denied the tickets were a moneymaking scam. He said he didn’t think it odd that Kanapsky wrote thousands of tickets. "It’s not unusual for a traffic officer to write 10 to 20 traffic violations a day, if not more."
Please. I’m all for highway safety, but I suspect that America’s roads have too many rules, and that gives cops too much arbitrary power to harass people or profit off them. As the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-Tse said, "The more laws that are written, the more criminals are produced."
I bet most Americans roll through stop signs. I do. It makes for a smoother ride, and it saves gas.
"ABC News" put cameras by stop signs in Warren, Mich., and in New York City. The video showed that in Warren, 72 percent of drivers did not come to a complete stop. In New York, 82 percent kept going.
Warren and other towns probably have too many stop signs. There’s no proof that more signs save lives. Studies show that sometimes installing stop signs lowers accident rates, but in some cases more accidents occurred after signs were installed.
In this month’s Atlantic, John Staddon argues that that America’s omnipresent stop signs make us less safe. He writes, "Stop signs are costly to drivers and bad for the environment: Stop/start driving uses more gas, and vehicles pollute most when starting up from rest. … [T]he overabundance of stop signs teaches drivers to be less observant of cross traffic and to exercise less judgment when driving — instead, they look for signs. …
"The four-way stop deserves special recognition as a masterpiece of counterproductive public-safety efforts. Where should the driver look?"
One Dutch town experimented by getting rid of most of its traffic signs. The result? Fewer accidents and fewer injuries.
Drivers look out for people instead of signs, and they negotiate their way through town.
Remember the stop sign in Warren, Mich., where Kanapsky wrote many of his tickets? It’s been changed to a yield sign. One result: fewer accidents.
Police say, "[B]etween Jan. 16, 2008, and May 21, 2008, there have been no accidents reported. During that same time frame in 2007, there were four crashes reported." Good. Let’s get rid of more signs.
And to all the cops who eagerly punish us for doing what they do, give me a break.