I received yet another speeding ticket last week. Ninety dollars for being clocked at 47 mph in a 30 mph zone. Draconian! Clearly highway robbery.
Or so I thought till I read about Anssa Vanjoki, another speed-demon prone to cruising in the soccer-mom zone. Poor Vanjoki was recently fined $100,000 for zooming at 46 mph in a 30 mph zone. The fine, as is customary in Finland, was calculated as a proportion of his most recent audited earnings. Turns out the poor chap isn’t too poor after all.
Reading up on Vanjoki’s misfortune, my incredulity at his fine was matched only by my respect for the system that levied it. Fortunately for my readers I shall refrain, for now, from pontificating on the virtues of European socialism. Indeed, my aim here is far more modest, though perhaps equally revolutionary. I suggest a shift from our current fixed traffic fine regime to a Finnish-style means-tested system.
The basic failing of our current system is that it affects different people differently. For if deterrence is the ultimate aim of a fine regime, then existing fixed fines disproportionately deter, and punish, the poor. This makes little sense. A speeding Porsche is as likely to kill or maim as a Toyota Tercel, and a victim would ideally prefer that both be deterred from rash actions. But to deter the rich as well as the poor, we need to abandon fixed fines in favor of income-based measures, essentially a system that fines you a percentage of your income as opposed to fixed dollar amounts.
Disparate impact lies at the core of our current enforcement system. Take my pet peeve: parking in New York City. With parking violations starting at $55, it’s no wonder that I’ve gone to extreme lengths to find legitimate spaces. From driving around in circles for ages to parking in distant places and taking public transportation, the dreaded parking ticket has proven the bane of my punctuality. Yet on any given weekend one can literally find dozens of cars parked in fire zones, next to hydrants and under no-parking signs. For the high-flying capitalist kings of the city, the cost of a parking violation is but a minor discomfort not worth their attention. Bet you they’d behave differently if they got slapped with five-figure fines for illegal parking.
A progressive-fine regime has other advantages as well. It is but a modification of a long-standing system. As different municipalities have different fine rates, there is at least some recognition that fines need not be uniform across a geographic spectrum. A significant advantage of the new system lies in revenue generation. By putting a system in place with a fixed minimum baseline, but unlimited upside, revenues should skyrocket. Imagine for a moment: deterrence increases, hence accidents decrease, yet revenues explode. Suddenly social security is saved, Medicare funded, police forces supplemented, and still some spare change to fight AIDS in Africa.
OK, perhaps a means-tested system is not the panacea to all our ills. But it’s a decent idea nevertheless, and it sure would make me feel better to see the Porsche owner observing speed limits and competing for limiting parking spots. Then again, perhaps I’m just poor, bitter and over-fined.
Ali Ahsan is a third-year student at the Yale Law School.