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Random Thoughts on Traffic Enforcement


You Are Damned If You Do And Damned If You Don't

I wrote this in 1774-5 as a former Transportation Administrator for the City of New York.  I still believe today that the key to better movement of trucks, automobiles and pedestrians is more consistent and persistent enforcement – and a major reduction in so-called “privileged parking”.

Any attempt at instituting congestion pricing MUST include adequate enforcement of all traffic regulations.

Cars, symbol of America’s resource-eating economy to some and a necessity to others, are a terribly difficult political problem for any transportation professional to handle.

On the one hand, his/her mission is to speed traffic of all kinds—to ease or prevent congestion—and to allow free movement of pedestrians as well.

On the other hand, every move made to solve the problem seems to create another, and it is difficult to tell an elected politician that solutions to traffic and congestion problems are long-term and difficult, or, more especially, not at all politically acceptable or popular.

Right now, to me traffic seems comparatively light, and that is probably due to the latest energy crisis, or at least to the resulting higher prices for gasoline.  Soon, however, the congestion will reappear, and in any event, the automobile will remain a substantial part of the nation’s transportation system for some time to come.

Which means that the City must come to terms with the automobile.  It also means that some of our rhetoric is self-contradictory.

Obviously, we want traffic, both necessary commuter and commercial, to flow freely and to allow commerce to continue uninterrupted.  Yet, we also want to save energy, gasoline in particular.  And, we want healthy, un-polluted air to breathe.

There are plenty of rules, regulations and laws on the books.  If, however, they were enforced properly, many people would be most unhappy.  Furthermore, they attempt to address different policy issues.

Take for example, the alternate-side-of-the-street, three-hour, no parking requirement.  I have always felt that the three hours was too long, and that one should be allowed to park after the sweeper has passed by.  Some other cities seem to allow this quite easily; but when suggested in New York, there are innumerable bureaucratic reasons why it cannot be done.

The streets must be cleaned.  If the building owner does not do it, the City must, or we will all be drowned in filth!  Yet, as a consequence we force car owners to either break the law by double parking or to take their car with them to work. City policy is to discourage automobile commuting; the street cleaning regulation, for all practical purposes, encourages use of the auto for the journey to work.  If the car owner cannot find gasoline, he has to either leave his car in the street or garage it.  If the private garage industry had to accommodate all the private automobiles now regularly parked on the street, an enormous investment would be required, which would ultimately be wasteful.  So, if one enforces the three-hour rule, one is encouraging commuting by private automobile, and the use of scarce fuel.  The alternative s to forget about cleaning the streets—or to stop literal enforcement of the existing regulations.

Although only some eight percent of the people who come to work in the Manhattan central business district south of 60th Street, between seven a.m. and ten a.m., use the private automobile, those cars, some 98,000 of them, cause quite a traffic jam. [as of 1973].

Interestingly enough, on a 24-hour basis, about forty percent of the trips ending in the Manhattan central business district originate in Manhattan as well.  I suspect that many of these trips are by commuters who are refugees from the street-cleaning regulations.

If our am is to reduce traffic, there should be a careful, sober analysis of the relative benefits to the public of the present street-cleaning system, and we should consider changing to one which imposes the cleaning burden on the property owner, as it is in the case of the sidewalks.  Throughout much of the City, in outlying districts where there are no curbs, exactly this is happening now.  The property owner does the cleaning, and the streets never see a sweeper.

That the public resents the present system is perfectly evident.  The average precinct policeman has no wish to issue parking summonses in a residential area—even for double parking.  Efforts to increase summons issuance bring community unrest and cries from the P.B.A. of “quotas.”

Frankly, I have never understood why that is such a bad word.  If we really mean to enforce these no parking laws—and we decide after a rational balancing of the benefits and detriments that it is worth the effort—then let’s do it!  Otherwise we are being hypocritical.

At least one upper West Side precinct has reached an agreement with community groups that said, effectively: “We will not ticket your double parked cars if you leave enough street space for traffic to pass.”  Although resisted by the Fire Department, that kind of local accommodation does not seen unreasonable.

The problem of enforcement of the traffic regulations, particularly the parking regulations, is multi-faceted and extremely complicated.  Let us leave to one side the residential problem, and consider instead the problem of any central business district—midtown or downtown Manhattan, Fordham Road, Downtown Brooklyn, Jamaica, and so forth.

There, traffic must be kept moving, and discipline must be maintained.  I have known three dedicated New York City Traffic Commissioners; Henry Barnes, Theodore Karagheuzoff, and Benjamin Ward.  Both Barnes and Ward had enforcement backgrounds while Karagheuzoff was a trained professional engineer and lawyer who rose through the traffic engineering ranks to become Chief Engineer and then Deputy Commissioner.  After Commissioner Barnes died in 1968, I recommended that Mayor John V. Lindsay appoint Karagheuzoff Traffic Commissioner, and he performed splendidly.

Both Ted and I knocked our heads against the enforcement problem for three years—since matters were getting progressively worse.  When Ted left for the Building Department and Ben Ward arrived, we got a commitment from the Mayor that traffic enforcement was a top priority item.  The new Police Commissioner, Don Cawley, agreed, and appointed a top trouble shooter, Bill Bonacum, to head the Traffic Division.

More importantly, we got legislation passed through the City Council that surprised even me.  What John Lindsay had to trade for that bill I really don’t know—some office space in a building (250 Broadway) for the City Council was the price, or part of it.  In any case, it was worth it.

To explain, in 1970, Commissioner Karagheuzoff and I had recommended to the Mayor’s Office that legislation be introduced into the City Council to expand the summonsing power of the Parking Enforcement Agent to include all kinds of parking violations.  In addition, we recommended that legislation also be introduced to create a new class of officer, to be called something like Traffic Control Agent, who would direct traffic at the intersections and would have the power to issue summonses for violations of both moving and parking regulations that would be common at intersections.

At a meeting in City Hall, then Deputy Mayor Aurelio decided that the first bill which should be introduced would be the one to increase the powers of the Parking Enforcement Agents.  You should understand that the Parking Enforcement Agent could at that time issue tickets for any kind of parking violation except the simple “No Parking” regulation.  The original basis for this exclusion was, it is believed, the desire of the City Council to keep the Parking Enforcement Agent out of residential areas and away from enforcing the alternate side of the street parking restrictions.

The bill to increase the meter maid’s powers languished, for some three years.  We never knew why.

In an effort to gain support for the more controversial second piece of legislation, for the new class of officers, Commissioner Karagheuzoff quietly touched base with the head of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, Ed Kiernan.  He was informed that the P.B.A. would not oppose the bill if it was introduced, provided that State Legislation was passed which would permit retired police officers to hold the new positions, without loss of their pension.  In view of the fact that this would have opened up a Pandora’s box of pension problems within the City Government, such legislation was never approved by the Mayor or introduced.  Nor was the bill for the new type of traffic control officer introduced into the City Council.

Finally, after Karagheuzoff had become Buildings Commissioner and Ward Traffic Commissioner, and with the Mayor firmly in back of the traffic improvement program for not only Midtown Manhattan but the whole City, a new bill was drawn which, through the careful and craftsman-like ability of General Counsel Anthony H. Atlas, substantially broadened the Transportation Administration’s powers.  What it did, and this was somewhat of a sleeper, was to give Transportation Administration concurrent power with the Police Department to enforce all laws, rules and regulations (and, of course, those are issued by the Transportation Administration) controlling both the parking of vehicles and the movement and conduct of vehicular and pedestrian traffic in and on all streets, etc., of the City.

If you look at it carefully, that was a very large grant of power to the Transportation Administration.

Quire rightly, Commissioner Ward started by training the new Parking Enforcement Agents to handle intersection control, and to relieve the Police from difficult spillback duty.  Eventually, however, there was no reason why the enforcement of rules such as those prohibiting jaywalking, or speeding regulations, should not be the responsibility of units within the Transportation Administration (now the Department of Transportation).  All enforcement has now been transferred to the Police Department.

Frankly, the enforcement of the moving regulations was quite unsatisfactory at that time.  Since leaving office as Transportation Administrator, I had been using the bus and subway system and have been walking around a god deal as well.  The callous disregard of red and green signals, of stop signs, and of speeding requirements on streets by all kinds of drivers was scandalous.  The speed limit both on main arteries, expressways and parkways was regularly exceeded, and buses, trucks, taxis and private automobiles all still race to beat the red lights and make one more block.  You do not find this in any other city that I know of.

It has long been my personal feeling that local enforcement by precinct officers of traffic violations, both moving and parking, is extremely important to the enforcement efforts of the City as a whole.  If people who drive can get away with total disregard of the signs and signals, they go off feeling that they can disregard other rules, requirements and regulations.  What must happen is that the consciousness of the average patrolman of the need to enforce traffic regulations by the issuance of summonses be raised.  He needs to be made more aware of the importance to the public of this kind of enforcement effort.

At one point in 1973, I asked the Police Department to furnish me with the number of summonses issued for various violations for the past ten years, and for a comparison between those numbers and the number of accidents where the contributing cause could be isolated by the Police Officer investigating the accident, as reported by the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles.

The report furnished by the Police Department was extremely interesting.  The three most dangerous violations, in my personal opinion, are speeding, failing to stop on a signal, and disobeying a sign.  From 1963 through 1969, the number of summonses issued on an annual basis for speeding ranged from a high of 163,677 in 1965 to a low of 124,805 in 1963.  Beginning in 1970, for reasons unknown to me, the number of summonses issued for speeding radically dropped: to 80,524 in 1970; 66,719 in 1971; and 59,198 in 1972.  I do not have the 1973 numbers, but I certainly hope they have gone up since the visible speeding infractions are far greater than they were.

One can make the same comparison for the violation “failure to stop on signal,” where the number of summonses issued has dropped from a high of 120,602 in 1963 to 71,276 in 1971 and to 76,475 in 1972.

What is even more interesting to me is that the contributory cause figures consistently show that reckless driving is one of the two chief causes of most accidents.  Failure to give right of way is a fairly close second.  Neither violation has received adequate attention.  In 1963, there were 173 summonses for reckless driving; 3,346 for failure to give right of way.  Nevertheless, reckless driving was the contributing cause for 39,328 accidents in 1963 and for 35,299 accidents in 1972.  The failure to give the right of way caused 21,841 accidents in 1963 and 22,026 accidents in 1972. 

The traffic enforcement problem was and is compounded by special privileges, mostly unmerited.  Everybody feels that an exception should be made for him, as a unique being and special case.  In effect, we all claim diplomatic privilege.  Of course, the enforcement of parking summonses was relatively poor before the Parking Violations Bureau was formed.  When the bugs in the P.V.B. system were ironed out, we had an enforcement tool that really worked and it’s remarkable what came out of the woodwork.

Firstly, we had the “official” vehicle problem.  In the old days, a lawyer for a government agency would merely collect all the tickets received and turned in by its employees every few months, and go down to Criminal Court and have them dismissed en masse.

When law enforcement vehicles were involved, the tickets were often simply ignored.

The new P.V.B. system operates by exception; if a ticket is issued, it eventually becomes a judgment filed in Civil Court, and if three or more go unanswered, the plate number is certified automatically to the State Department of Motor Vehicles, and the owner cannot get his registration renewed until he has settled up with the P.V.B.

Well, our first problem came when a number of Federal Law Enforcement Agency vehicles turned up on scofflaw lists.  One week, the top scofflaw vehicle, over $15,000 worth of judgments owed to the City, was a Federal car.  Naturally, a law enforcement agency’s undercover vehicle on official business such as surveillance is entitled to consideration—but you do not have to plead, and you can’t ignore the tickets.

There is a procedure called the “valid verifiable defense” under which an agency head or top deputy may certify that the ticket was incurred as a result of a genuine emergency in the course of official business, and the ticket will be dismissed without a hearing.  However, the P.V.B. will not accept for this treatment tickets received for certain specified offenses such as double-parking, fire hydrants, bus stops, and no standing zones.  In such cases the tickets are simply returned to the sender stamped V.V.D. Denied.”  Many of the law enforcement scofflaw vehicles fell into this trap, and there were some particularly irate conversations with different law enforcement agency officials.

Obviously, parking is a serious problem for the government employee who is required to use an automobile on official business.  To force the employees to pay these tickets is sometimes quite unfair, particularly if the agency involved has made no effort to provide adequate parking spaces for those vehicles, which are really needed.  Again, it took the advent of the P.V.B. with its “by exception” computer to begin to create the pressures necessary to force the City to begin to clean up its own house.

The Traffic Department now took over and operated lots in the City Hall area, which were supposed to be for official cars, or cars whose owners receive reimbursement for mileage incurred on official business.  Despite a tough attitude by TAD and the Traffic Commissioner, abuses kept creeping into the system and constant vigilance was necessary.

Having tackled our own back yard, we were ready to talk to the Feds.  The most cooperative were the U.S, Customs Service.  The Regional Director, Fred Boyette, called up and asked for a meeting on the problems caused by the Bowling Green subway construction next to the old Customs building, which effectively took away most of the spaces allocated to them for official parking.

The Traffic Department was able to assist them, and we then asked that the Customs begin to clean up their backlog of tickets—which meant pleading to each and everyone.  They complied with grace.

Next we had discussions with the U.S. Department of Justice and the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.  When I left, those problems were close to resolution.  The backlog, however, is still enormous.

Also, the problems of the doctor, the press vehicle, and the just plain political heavy all had to be dealt with.

And then the diplomats.   New York City is inundated with U.N. officials and Foreign Counsels, and they all seem to have privileged automobiles.

Unfortunately, the agreements signed by the United States Government when the United Nations was located in New York City extended diplomatic immunity to all employees of a mission, not just the head of it.  Commander Maggs of Scotland Yard, who has London’s Traffic Division, told me on 1973 that London allocated one space for an Ambassador by his office and one by his residence, and that was all.  Our Traffic Department had to provide more, and what’s more, under existing law illegally parked DPL automobiles cannot be towed away.  Most missions cooperate; but not all.

My pet peeve was the automobile with all sorts of shields and red lights, mostly only semi-official, whose owner hopes the ticket issuer will pass him by.  Orders were to ignore all such ornamentation.  In fact, I used to check such plates especially for scofflaw status.

Most New Yorkers do not know that the Tow-away Zone is not limited to the Midtown area alone.  Actually, spot tows can be arranged between Police, Traffic and P.V.B. anywhere, and if a scofflaw car is located, the sheriff can attach it at the Police pound, and levy on it for the judgment owned the City.  We used to keep an especially sharp eye out for Vermont DPL plates; there are no Diplomats accredited to Vermont, and you can get a plate by just writing away for it.

Once, the American Automobile Association called for help.  Regularly, two Vermont cars, a sedan and a station wagon, had been parking in the spaces reserved for the Club’s emergency vehicles.  The numbers were like PL and PL-1.  The local police precinct responded nobly and issued ticket after ticket, which were simply ignored; you could see them on the floors of the offending vehicles.

So, we got the Traffic Division to tow both away.  As it happened, the Captain in charge called up to say that the plates were on the wrong cars, and that the owner was going to have an awfully difficult time getting them back.

Well, for several days nothing happened.  Then a lawyer tentatively appeared, surveyed the situation, and retreated.  When last heard, the cars were still at the pound, and for all I know may still be there.  I only wish I had been able to see the faces of the owners when they went looking for their cars.

Director Atlas and I almost got into trouble when we tried to garner some publicity for the Parking Violations Bureau, one lovely summer day in 1970.  We first posed with some promoted meter-maids (really Parking Enforcement Agents) and then set off with them up Broadway, hunting for illegally parked cars.  Well, about the first we saw was that belonging to Arthur Levitt, the State Controller.  Not politic, to say the least . . .

The next car was in the process of receiving a summons when someone in the back seat stirred and a young lady rose up, obviously awoken from a very sound sleep.  The next car was a City-owned car, and it also got a ticket, but I was dreadfully afraid of a story about P.V.B. harassing the innocent motorist.

Actually, the story of the Parking Violations Bureau and how it was created would fill a book.  The computer system that was first installed had to be compatible with that in use by the Criminal Courts, and was not very flexible.  One result of course was that sometimes dunning notices full of threats were received by people who had never been in New York City.  This problem was caused by the fact that an error had either crept into the computer as it was being programmed, or the information that P.V.B. got back from Albany was incorrect.  P.V.B. computers spewed out more and more wrong notices, and people began to become seriously upset.  Even the Transportation Administrator was not immune:  I got a second notice myself on a backhoe I own and which is a farm vehicle that could not possibly make it to New York City.  Anyway, Donald Flynn and Donald Weinbrenner started a series on October 13, 1971, which effectively put the pressure on the City as well as the State to begin to rectify some of these problems.

Senator Caemmerer held public hearing and the Bureau defended itself as best it could.  Although the hearings were an ordeal, they had one effect.  We got much quicker help from the Bureau of the Budget in getting necessary personnel to do such simple things as answer the mail which was then running at some 8,000 letters a week.

I must say, however, that although The Daily News did us a service, I suspected that a good number of people read the articles and figured that they could ignore notices with impunity.  Gradually, however, the system was reformed and, indeed, a new computer program based on a new computer system was installed.  The complaints about errors and the volume of mail dropped dramatically, and, all in all, I was very proud of the way that Bureau was operating as I left office.

Re-reading this thirty- plus years later, nothing has really changed here in good old NYC!

Mayor Bloomberg and his team have the same problems – may they succeed where we failed!

Written 1974
Revised May 2007


Constantine Sidamon-Eristoff
May 15, 2007