Incentives Matter

Monday, August 22nd, 2011

A New Orleans police officer has been arrested for writing more than 200 phantom seat belt citations. Why would he do that?

Glenn Gross, who works in the NOPD’s information technology department, was writing bogus tickets for seat-belt violations, allowing him to collect extra pay, Superintendent Ronal Serpas said.

The department received a federal grant in June that pays for overtime for officers who enforce seat-belt laws. Rather than doing the work and writing up motorists who had violated the law, Gross, 44, wrote tickets to phantom motorists, officials said.

Officials said the investigation is continuing and that other officers, and possibly a supervisor, are also under scrutiny. Serpas said he couldn’t say how much overtime Gross collected as a result of the scam.

You know, libertarians are often mocked when we decry mandatory seat belt laws, or when we get all hot and bothered about federal meddling in trifles like this.

Even if you don’t much care about personal freedom, here’s why this stuff matters: Put aside this particular cop and his made-up violations. Put aside the others who may also be implicated in the investigation. Put aside also the (legitimate) concerns about how such incentives might encourage bad cops to fine actual motorists who are wearing seat belts, or about how primary seat belts laws give police another reason to make pretext stops that can then lead to dubious searches and harassment.

Even assuming that everybody’s motives are on the up and up, here, you still have a city with a murder rate that’s ten times the national average. And here you have a federal program that hands out bonus checks not to cops who spend their time walking beats in dangerous neighborhoods, who patrol high-crime areas, or who put in overtime to solve murders . . . but to cops who hunt down motorists who aren’t wearing their seat belts.

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59 Responses to “Incentives Matter”

  1. #1 |  Highway | 

    marco at #49:
    but personally, I don’t even move the car around in the driveway without putting on my seat belt.

    This is what should be done. People in my vehicle use seatbelts, because I tell them to. And really, most people use a seatbelt because they realize it makes them safer, not because ‘the law’ says they have to. This is the same mechanism that is in control of drunk driving now. The people who drive drunk, or don’t wear their seatbelt, are gonna be those folks who aren’t swayed by the law.

    Look at the current distracted driving cause celebre: phones. Maryland passed a law saying “No hand held phones, no texting, no email while driving”. The law hasn’t stopped *anyone* as far as I can tell. It’s not that it’s primary or secondary enforcement because, honestly, a cop could pull anyone over they wanted to at any time for some suspected violation, then hit them with a ‘secondary’ violation for a cell phone. It’s that people don’t realize it’s the wrong thing to do. The people who already don’t use phones while driving are the ones who realize this. Maybe more people need to have an epiphany, or maybe more people need to have a close scare. I don’t know. But it’s not laws that will turn it around, just like it wasn’t laws with seatbelts or drunk driving (both trends were well on their way down when the laws were enacted).

  2. #2 |  dunphy | 

    “just like it wasn’t laws with seatbelts or drunk driving (both trends were well on their way down when the laws were enacted).”

    sorry, don’t buy that on drunk (impaired driving). what helped drastically reduce DUI and specifically DUI deaths and injuries was aggressive enforcement, proactive enforcement, legislation, better training, etc.

    what;’s ironic is that this was primarily spearheaded by groups like MADD, not the govt. govt. reacted to their pressure

  3. #3 |  Highway | 

    It’s not ironic that government responded to an interest group’s pressure. That’s how most of these crusading laws are passed: Helmet, seatbelt, safety features in cars, etc etc. There are pressure groups that exert that pressure on government agencies and elected officials. Then they get the ear of NHTSA or FHWA or whoever, and get their legislation considered.

  4. #4 |  Mannie | 

    #18 | hilzoy fangirl | August 22nd, 2011 at 5:28 pm


    Someone who dies in a car accident because they weren’t wearing a seatbelt hasn’t consented to die any more than someone who dies in a botched mugging because they were walking alone at night in a desolate park.

    Someone who contracts HIV after having unprotected anal sex hasn’t consented to die any more than someone who dies in an auto crash. Ergo, we should outlaw anal sex. Oh wait …

    Someone who dies of congestive heart failure because he ate too much fatty food hasn’t consented to die any more than someone who dies in an auto crash. Ergo, we should regulate what people are allowed to eat. Oh wait …

    Get the State the hell out of the trivia of my life.

  5. #5 |  BBCC | 

    More and more I wonder if bureaucracies are simply looking for ways to seem productive. While the more important consideration would be to solve murder cases, there’s probably a pretty big chance that even all that extra man power may or may not lead to any real outcomes. On the other hand, programs that can create large quantifiable databases of police activity make for good press.

  6. #6 |  John | 

    I really love the federal grant part of this. I remember when the law was being discussed and had little public support. Congressmen were stating publicly that we shouldn’t worry; the seat belt law would never be informed on it’s own; it would only be something that was added to some other violation for which a person was pulled over for.

  7. #7 |  Bill | 

    #51, thanks for mentioning the distracted driving issue. After all, if it’s not illegal for me to be distracted by my cell phone, how can I be distracted by all the big, colorful, often-animated billboards and computerized signs along the road?

  8. #8 |  Incentives Matter | The Agitator « Daniel J. Smith | 

    […] […]

  9. #9 |  Um, what? | chris gaun | 

    […] ‘libertarians are often mocked” when they turn horribly designed pay incentives into an argument against seat belt laws: […]