Another Perspective

Progressive Ticketing

Another new European practice we may soon sample ourselves.

By 3.24.04

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We've got "progressive" taxation -- those who earn more pay more -- but how about "progressive" traffic fines? Should the amount you have to pay for a speeding ticket or failing to buckle up be based on how deep your pockets are?

The concept is already being tried out in Europe -- and, be advised, what starts there often ends up here. Authorities in Helsinki, Finland, recently slammed a speeder with a $216,900 fine -- an amount arrived at after authorities reviewed the offender's tax records and income. Jussi Salonoja, 27, turns out to be worth millions -- so his fine was notched up to a level that would cause him the same painful sense of loss a $200 ticket might an ordinary wage slave. Anssi Vanjoki -- at the time a Nokia vice-president -- was similarly issued a $148,000 ticket for doing 45 in a 30-mph zone. In case you were wondering, that works out to $9,866.66 per mile over the speed limit.

While workers of the world types might cheer this sort of thing, anyone who gives it a little thought will come to see the inequity. "Ability to pay" should no more be the basis for fines than ability to endure pain should determine the amount of anesthesia a person gets at the dentist's before a root canal. Whether it's income tax or roadside robbery, the undercurrent of malice remains the same.

There's also the issue of proportionality. Petty crimes -- some of them involving violence -- rarely rate more than 30 days of actual time in the pokey (assuming there's even a conviction). As for fines, there are usually none -- or they are small. In any event, the offender is almost always broke and ends up paying nothing or next to nothing. How does that square with issuing non-violent, otherwise solid citizens who have at most convicted a minor technical infraction six figure fines?

Luckily, we here in the United States do have the Constitution and Bill of Rights -- which in theory offer equal protection of the laws. But in practice, the equal protection clause was thrown out the window years ago, when the graduated income tax system became the law of the land. The guiding principle of U.S. income tax law is "progressivism" -- put simply, ability to pay. Your tax rate is based on how much you earn. The scales become more punitive the more successful you become. At one time, the top effective federal tax rate was nearly 90 percent; today, it is less -- but still almost half one's income at a certain level. Even moderately successful people pay out a third of their annual income to the government.

So much for "equal protection of the laws."

Probably the only reason the principle that governs taxes hasn't yet been applied to traffic fines is that up to now no one in the bureaucracy thought of deploying it against "speeders." But now that it's being put into effect in Europe, don't be surprised if it makes its way here, too. It was the British, for example, who first deployed surveillance cameras in public places -- as well as photo radar. (Of course, the Brits have no Bill of Rights, either.)

So get ready. Your next ticket may cost you a lot more than $100.

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About the Author

Eric Peters is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities: The Cars You Love to Hate (Motor Books International) and a new book, Road Hogs.