Monday, October 16, 2006

Safety Zones On Alaska Highways Just Another Revenue Enhancement Gimmick

Today (October 16th), the Anchorage Daily News published a brief story about the implementation of a "safety zone" (graphic at left courtesy of DOT&PF website) on a stretch of the Parks Highway through the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, from Mile 44.5 (Pittman Road) to Mile 53 (Big Lake cutoff). Fines for traffic violations within this "safety zone" will double, starting today. For example, this means driving 10 mph over the posted speed limit will cost $160 instead of $80. Passing on a double yellow line will cost $300.

"The double fines are meant as a deterrent more than as a punishment," said Bill Tandeske, Alaska's Commissioner of Public Safety, in a statement. Safety zones have proved to make highways safer, according to the department. It's the second such highway designation this year in Alaska. The first "safety zone" extends for about 27 miles between Anchorage and Girdwood on the Seward Highway.

Background: According to information from the State of Alaska Press Archives, Alaska Senate Bill 261 authorized the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities to designate a section of highway as a “traffic safety corridor,” where fines for traffic offenses would be doubled. SB 261 also allows for 50 percent of fines collected to be used by DOT&PF to further highway safety programs and enforcement. On May 26th, 2006, Governor Frank Murkowski (pictured above left, courtesy of KTUU)addressed this issue during the ceremony when he signed SB 261 into law.

We know that driver behavior is the leading cause of accidents on those sections of road with the highest serious/fatal accident rate and we know high risk drivers respond appropriately to the prospect of getting caught and paying the fine.” Murkowski said. “We have seen this idea save lives in the seven other states that have similar programs, and I know it will have a dramatic effect in Alaska.”

After establishing a similar program, Oregon saw a 45 percent decrease in truck-at-fault crashes within its designated corridors. New Mexico reported a 17 percent decrease in total collisions and 100 percent reduction in fatal collisions in its safety corridors. [Ed. Note: Percentages can easily be "spun" to make a point rather than reflect a genuine trend. For example, a drop in fatalities from two to one in one year could be spun as "a dramatic drop of 50% in the fatality rate" when, in reality, only one life was saved]

Governor Murkowski proposed the “Safety Corridor” bill during his original State of the Budget Address, in which he outlined the need for an immediate response to make Alaska’s highways safer. His budget address also included stepped up enforcement and more funding for road improvements on the Seward Highway. [Ed. Note: "More funding" - isn't that called "revenue enhancement"?]

Under SB 261, the DOT&PF commissioner also establishes the criteria to be used in designating a safety corridor. The commissioner considers accident data and reports, the type and volume of vehicular traffic, and engineering and traffic studies. Before designating a safety corridor, the commissioner consults with the commissioner of the Department of Public Safety and local traffic safety organizations to assure coordination and that the safety zone designation includes increased law enforcement.

While we continue to invest in long-term solutions to making our highway system safer, these safety corridors should be effective in dealing with problem driving,” said DOT&PF Commissioner Mike Barton. “These are intended to be a temporary response and we intend to use them where appropriate.” [Ed. Note: Yeah, just like school zones and double fines for construction zones proved "temporary", right?]

Once designated, a safety corridor would remain until the accident and fatality rates fall to below the designated criteria or until conditions make the designation no longer necessary.

Commentary: The real question isn't if "safety zones" save lives, but is the savings worth making Americans' lives even more complicated and restrictive than they are now? We can make a case for school zones; elementary school kids frequently dart into traffic without warning, simply because they have diminished capacity to contemplate the consequences of their actions. They live for the "moment", and thus require extra protection.

We can even make a case for "double fine construction zones". Construction workers frequently operate adjacent to vehicular traffic and also require the extra protection.

But "safety zones"? This merely increases the hodgepodge of restrictions Americans are subjected to on a daily basis. Is it the responsibility of government to further complicate our lives just to protect us against ourselves? The problems on the winding Seward Highway weren't caused by speeding, but by unsafe passing of slower vehicles by faster motorists, which falls under the definition of "reckless driving". Whether it's "safety zones", anti-smoking laws, bicycle helmet laws, or MADD's ceaseless campaigning for even more draconian DUI legislation, America is becoming a more intrusive, invasive, and oppressive society. Frank Murkowski has proven just as out of touch with mainstream Alaska as George W. Bush has with mainstream America, and received a well-deserved spanking in the Republican primary this past August.

And this trend towards big, buxom government, in the name of "protecting us against ourselves" is the responsibility of the Republicans in power much more so than the Democrats who are not in power. Unfortunately, many Democrats are more interested in regurgitating tired old sound bites and scoring cheap propaganda points on pundits' T.V. programs than in actually offering alternatives to Republican misrule. If the Democrats would commit themselves to simplifying government, reducing immigration, eliminating affirmative action, leashing this out-of-control "War on Terror", respecting traditional American cultural values, and in general making life for Americans LESS intrusive, invasive, and oppressive, we would hand them the Alaska State Legislature and Congress on a silver platter tomorrow.

Finally, these "safety zones" are presented as a "temporary" solution. How many "temporary" solutions have become "permanent"? Remember the "telephone tax" implemented during the Spanish-American War of 1898? It took over 100 years to get rid of it.

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