In the wake of New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine's recent car accident, much has been made of the governor's decision not to wear a seat belt.
One of the governor's own aides suggested the governor be issued a citation, even as he lay in a hospital bed in critical condition. And a resident of New Jersey filed a formal complaint against Corzine.
While I'm not personally fond of mandatory seat-belt laws (I don't think it's the government's responsibility to protect us from ourselves), there is certainly some hypocrisy involved in his presiding over a state that requires the use of seat belts while the governor himself refuses to wear one.
But I found it interesting that at a short press conference held just before he left the hospital, Gov. Corzine apologized for his "poor example" in failing to buckle up, but didn't apologize for the actual cause of the accident — conveying the idea that he, the governor, is too important to obey traffic laws.
We now know that Corzine and his driver were barreling down a busy highway at more than 90 miles per hour, flashing their lights, shunting commoner motorists to the side of the road. The sight of Corzine's car rushing up in one driver's review mirror caused him to lose control of his truck in an effort to get out of the way, triggering a chain reaction that resulted in the accident that put Corzine in the hospital. It's fortunate Corzine's driver didn't kill someone.
And what exactly was so important that Corzine had to put the lives and safety of his fellow citizens at risk? He was on his way to a reconciliation meeting between shock jock Don Imus and the Rutgers women's basketball team. Essentially a photo-op.
It's telling that Corzine is contrite for putting his own life at risk, but not for jeopardizing the lives of everyone else on the road.
Corzine isn't the only one. There's an increasing hubris among many elected officials that their job is so important, their time so much more precious than ours and their position in public life so privileged, that they can zip by us on the road, pushing everyday folk aside so they can get to their far more important destinations.
This is about more than just traffic laws, of course. It's about the arrogance of power. These politicians not only assume their lives, meetings and fundraisers are more important than everyone else's to the point that they don't have to follow the rules, they're willing to put other people on the road at risk to prove their point.
In 2003, The Washington Post reported that New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson routinely ordered his driver to whip down public roads at speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour. Even after those reports, when a police officer attempted to pull over Richardson's car for speeding in 2005, the governor's driver refused to stop. In the last two years, Richardson's lieutenant governor has also been caught running a red light and parking in a fire zone.
For his part, Richardson refused to apologize for his law-breaking. He said he'd instruct his drivers to slow down, but cited his busy schedule as governor and said he wouldn't promise not to speed again. By April 2006, his car was seen pushing 90 again.
In 2003, South Dakota Rep. Bill Janklow blew through a stop sign while speeding and killed a man on a motorcycle. Janklow had been previously pulled over 16 times for speeding, but never ticketed.
Though Janklow was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the accident, in 2004 prosecutors determined he was officially "on the job" when he struck the motorcyclist, meaning federal taxpayers will have to foot the bill for the $25 million lawsuit filed by Janklow's victim's family.
Press reports in 2004 revealed that Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell's car had been clocked traveling over 100 miles per hour on nine separate occasions. Rendell subsequently admitted to giving his drivers permission to speed to get him to meetings, though he did promise to stop giving those instructions in the future.
After Corzine's crash in April, Rendell acknowledged that despite his prior assurances, his drivers do sometimes still exceed the speed limit to help him make appointments, but he assured Pennsylvanians that he always wears his seat belt. Well. Good thing he's keeping himself safe.
I happen to live in the Washington, D.C., area, a hotbed of the motorcade madness. I can tell you, it's a little scary to be humming along on the interstate at 70 miles per hour, only to see a bunch of cars with flashing lights zooming up on your bumper. Everyone scrambles to get out of the way, and it isn't difficult to see how accidents might happen. One D.C.-area blogger wrote about an accident last month where a D.C. motorcade plowed through a red light and slammed into a Jeep.
Anecdotally, there seem to be quite a few more motorcades than there used to be. I can understand why security concerns would cause very high-ranking federal officials — the president and vice president, for example — to require a motorcade and have streets opened up to allow them to pass (though I do find President Bush's tendency to shut down entire cities during rush hour so he can attend political fundraisers just as pompous).
But the number of public officials who think they're important enough to push other motorists aside seems to be on the rise.
This past March, newly-elected D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty's car was caught on video racing across icy roads and ignoring red lights and traffic laws on his way to a political fundraiser. Fenty's excuse was lame.
"If you're trying to make sure that you're on time so that the business of the city does not have to wait, stop or be delayed, I think it is appropriate," he said.
Fenty's job is no more important than anyone else's. It's certainly not so important that he should be able to put other motorists at risk. And let's not forget: He was on his way to a fundraiser. Fenty's wife gets a police escort, too.
There's also a measure of hypocrisy to all of this. Gov. Richardson is a staunch supporter of red-light cameras. Mayor Fenty supports his city's red-light and speed cameras, despite the fact that D.C.'s red-light cameras have been plagued by charges of corruption, poor maintenance and the tendency to issue tickets to innocent motorists. Gov. Rendell presided over the installation of the first surveillance cameras in Philadelphia (after, it's worth adding, a $75,000 campaign contribution from the company that was awarded the contract to install them).
All these politicians have supported laws that could generally be seen as anti-motorist, be it allowing for camera surveillance of public roads, increasing fines and punishments for traffic offenses or adding new offenses to the books.
All sanctimoniously sign these bills while mouthing high-minded rhetoric about public safety (usually, such bills are more about generating revenue for city coffers).
But the minute "public safety" conflicts with their own sense of self-importance, these politicians are quick to dispense with the laws they expect the rest of us to follow.
Radley Balko is a senior editor with Reason magazine. He publishes the weblog, TheAgitator.com.