For several years, police officers here have been doing pedestrians a big favor. They have been enforcing the District's laws against jaywalking so efficiently that, year after year, pedestrian deaths have been reduced.
Lask week, Washington Post staff writer Tom Sherwood brought us the dismaying news that pedestrian violations had been "decriminalized" by the City Council. Instead of facing a judge, offenders would be brought before the District's Department of Transportation for civil hearings. Police officers would still be authorized to issue tickets for jaywalking, but culprits would no longer be required to give their true names. If an offender said his name was Chief Sitting Bull, that's the name the cop would have to write down on the ticket. And District officials admitted that such a law is "basically, ultimately unenforceable."
Next, the American Automobile Association urged the U.S. Department of Transportation to make public a DOT trucking report about the high accident rate of double trailer combinations, "the so-called western doubles" that run 65 feet in length.
AAA said DOT's report showed that the western doubles are involved in significantly more accidents than are conventional 55-foot tractor-trailers. iThe auto club added that the report was dated Sept. 28, 1980 -- one week before the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the Iowa law that prohibited the 65-foot doubles. AAA suggested that if Iowa officials had known about the report and had used it to bolster their case, the Supreme Court might have upheld their law instead of overturning it. But Iowa officials didn't know what DOT had learned because DOT had not yet released its findings.
Why? I spent most of Monday trying to find out. What I learned was that DOT's Federal Highway Administration had hired Biotechnology, an outside contractor, to research accident reports and other pertinent data and then formulate conclusions based on the data. The study began with accidents in October 1976 and ended with records for May 1979. However, it was not until September of 1980 that a draft of the report was sent out for review by AAA, the American Trucking Association, and other parties at interest.
Conflicting comments from the trucking industry and from AAA have been evaluated, and to whatever extent DOT found them valid the report has been (and is still being) revised. The truckers have on a number of occasions met personally with DOT officials to present their views on double trailers, but DOT people say they feel no pressure from the truckers and are determined to bring out a report that deals with the issue "objectively and fairly." AAA officials are skeptical. They wonder why figures that show twice as many accidents for double trailers were termed "not significant" in the first draft of the "final" report.
While I was trying to understand why a report on a major highway danger takes so long to be released to the public, staff writers Martin Weil and Alfred E. Lewis dropped the other shoe on the story Sherwood began. Yesterday we learned that in addition to decriminalizing jaywalking, the City Council decriminalized amusing but inconsequential little foibles like running through red lights and stop signs, and driving the wrong way on one-way streets.
Even if an officer sees you commit such offenses, he is no longer authorized to order you to stop because the offense has been decriminalized. The best the officer can do is write down your license number, your description and a description of your car. Then he can turn in this information to the District's DOT, which can ask you to come in for a civil hearing -- unless, of course, the paperwork has meanwhile become lost in the computer.
Of course if you go through the red light so fast that the policeman can't get a good description of the back of your head, and if he therefore cannot identify you as the miscreant driver, he has no case.
We are already in trouble because police are forbidden to spot-check motorists to ascertain which of them are continuing to drive although their permits were "revoked" for serious and repeated offenses. The City Council's explanation that it decriminalized "minor" transgressions like busting through a red light because the courts were too busy to handle so many cases leaves rational citizens, if there are any, to wonder whether anybody in this Alice In Wonderland town knows what he's doing.