Another Perspective

Points Spread

Don’t be caught dead in the carpool lane.

By 3.4.04

Issuing DMV "points" for offenses that having nothing to do with driving is becoming the latest in thing. In Virginia and Maryland, for example, one can get points -- as well as a beefy fine -- for violating carpool restrictions.

But how, exactly, is not having two or more people in your car a matter of pubic safety?

The logic behind the points system is that it provides an objective means of ranking drivers according to their propensity to drive safely -- or not. Various moving violations that enhance the risk of an accident -- for example, running a red light -- cause a certain number of demerit points to be assigned that driver's record. Accumulate too many points within a given period of time -- the limit is usually 12-15 or so within a calendar year -- and the DMV can suspend or revoke the offender's license. Insurance companies use the number of points on a driver's DMV record to adjust insurance rates -- up or down. The more points, the more you pay. Drivers with 12 points or more are often stuck in the so-called "SR-22" high-risk group that typically has to pay $2,000 or more annually for coverage.

Now, the points system has many flaws -- the biggest one being the assignment of demerit points for simple "speeding," which often bears no relation to safe driving. But at least up to now the general rule has been that the offense must involve a moving violation that could put others at risk.

Handing out points just because you haven't got the mandatory number of bodies in your vehicle turns that concept on its head. The person may be a scofflaw. But it's got absolutely nothing to do with his driving. And yet, a multiple carpool lane violator could rack up a pile of points on his driver's record -- which to any insurance agent or DMV clerk would look much the same as the record of a habitual red light runner or DWI offender.

Is that reasonable -- or ridiculous?

SEAT BELT LAWS ARE ANOTHER CASE in point. It's no longer sufficient merely to issue fines to those who refuse to buckle up. Many localities are trying to pass -- or already have passed -- legislation that would allow the unbuckled to be issued demerit points, simply for failing to wear a seatbelt. (There have even been calls to issue tickets to passengers who aren't buckled.)

But just as it may be inadvisable to run the carpool lanes solo, driving while unbuckled is no more a "moving violation" than listening to Britney Spears at top volume. Annoying and stupid, perhaps. But no real threat to other drivers.

What it ultimately comes down to is whether we want a government -- or a Salvation Army cajoling us to adopt certain "good for us" behaviors.

On a purely practical level, the use of cudgels such as the DMV points system to henpeck people over matters peripheral to their driving skills muddies the waters as effectively as a Mississippi paddle-wheeler. If "offenses" such as not having the proper number of warm bodies in one's car are thrown in with genuinely dangerous actions such as red light-running and reckless driving, how will the proverbial wheat be separated from the chaff?

Or do we all get lumped in together as "bad drivers"?

Maybe that's what it's all about, in the final analysis. There's big money at stake -- because with a greater variety of offenses on the books that can result in "bad driving records," our friends in the insurance industry will have an easier time jacking up our rates. And with more pretexts for harassment by the state, our friends in government will have more tools available to torment us with.

But please -- spare us the sanctimony about saving lives.

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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.