George Orwell, your car is ready

"President Nader signed a bill into law this morning, effectively banning the activities of the American Civil Liberties Union on driving activities. Quoting from his campaign platform, Mr. Nader said,'They're letting people get away with murder, and we've got to do something!'"

I sighed and turned the car radio off. Another domino had fallen. With crime at an all-time high across the nation, the conservative congress, led by Mr. Nader, had enacted a series of laws to increase the effectiveness of law enforcement. A massive nationwide reform had quadrupled the number of police on anti-crime patrols. Many of the new police personnel came from the military services, a part of the hundreds of thousands of unemployed created as part of the "peace dividend" and military budget cuts. The rest came almost entirely from reassigned traffic officers.

I slid my personal debit card into the slot in the dash below the ignition keypad, and watched while the screen displayed my current driving debt. Modern technology, instead of providing an electronic infrastructure for drive-by-wire had been used to monitor each driver's activities. Traffic law enforcement no longer required an officer to enforce most moving violations; an on-board module monitored all driving activities. The so-called "cop coprocessor", made mandatory in all vehicles, constantly monitored vehicle speed and driver behavior, and kept a running total of violations, imprinting them on your debit card.

The total on the screen made me wince. It was easy to overlook the annoying voice that came from the speaker every time you exceeded a posted speed even by a little. "Warning! Warning!", heard frequently enough, could fail to make much of an impression. The debit card, which was the only way that fuel could be purchased, would have to be paid at the next fill-up. This included not only any violations that may have accumulated, but apportioned liability insurance as well. Insurance was paid for by the tankfull. Failure to comply would render the card useless for starting the car. Tampering with it was unthinkable; the penalties were harsh. Motor vehicle licensing and registration were now entirely under federal control. As with most federal agencies, there were no grace periods; fear of punishment was enough to maintain your attention.

The breathalyzer tube popped out of the steering wheel hub. Dutifully, I blew into it. In a few seconds, a green indicator lit to show the start button was enabled. I fired up the engine, then eased the car out of the driveway. Made full stops at every stop sign. Obeyed every sign to the letter. The cop-in-the-box maintained a constant level of fearful awareness that the picnic was over; nobody got away with much, anymore.

In the past, radar units would catch speeders. They were relatively easy to use; just sit and watch the numbers. Sophisticated radar detectors made this kind of enforcement easy to evade. It was highly arguable that the public good was served much, or the roads made safer this way; certainly it was more profitable to hand out lots of speeding tickets than to sit by a stop sign all day. Then came laser guns; these were highly effective and nearly impossible to avoid. However, they had to be aimed by hand, and after the initial fun factor wore off, the average officer was less enthused about tagging speeders this way. Given the all-too-human lapses in attention (not to mention the lack of a free hand to handle food and drink), the equipment didn't even pay for itself. Under the new federal regulations, laser monitors were installed in most overpasses, sighted on each lane of traffic. Constant monitoring of all traffic enabled citations to be issued for every speed infraction. As with photo radar, though, the American Civil Liberties Union held that it was not proper to cite the owner of the car without knowing who the driver was. The new regulations, part of a sweeping reform by a conservative administration, provided positive driver ID, so the ticket would get to the right person no matter what he was driving. The car ahead of me had a bumper sticker that read, "Big Brother is my co-pilot". Much truth is said in jest.

Much of the windfall of traffic tickets, which now were sent out in record numbers, went to subsidize mass transit. In truth, unless all drivers stayed within all legal restraints all the time, it looked like mass transit would soon be free of charge. This could eventually empty the highways of commuters, although old habits die hard. Commuter trains were still far from being the luxurious magic carpets our parents imagined the future would bring, and traffic was still pretty heavy. The tendency to pass the car ahead became an adventure in budget bashing. Traffic lanes were arranged in what amounted to increasing credit limits. Speed costs money, as they used to say. How fast did you want to go?

Riding in the "fast" lane, I promised myself that I would take the train next week and help pay for this week's indulgence. Ahead of me in the left lane loomed a throwback to the days before lane discipline; a 55 mph bandit, stolidly plugging along at the "legal" limit. I blipped the lights and the horn, but he appeared to be defiantly oblivious. The new laws gave the obstructed driver some new options in situations like this. An electronic command could be unleashed against the "failure-to-yield" driver that would immobilize his car, imprisoning the driver within, to await arrest and incarceration. Repeated violations of lane discipline allowed a more drastic form of action.

After three repeated warnings from me, my display issued a "fair game" alert. I flipped up the cover on the shift knob and depressed the little red button. A brief, noisy flame erupted from under my front bumper as the short range magnetic incendiary missile launched toward the offending vehicle. It buried itself in his rear sheet metal. The driver hastily swerved to the shoulder, frantically stopped, threw open his door and began running up the median, knowing he had 15 seconds to get away from the timed charge. When his car burst into flames, I could see in my rear view mirror other drivers flashing their lights and grinning at the rough justice being done.

It seemed that the new laws did have some good points. By having driving laws enforced by other drivers, we were all helping make the world a better place. After all, they're getting away with murder! Someone has got to do something!

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Last Modified May 7, 2000