The Stop Sign Tax

By John Carr, oos Massachusetts Activist

          When all you can afford is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

If we can’t abolish stop signs, we should at least tax them at $20,000 per year to reflect the harm they do.

You may not think of a car stopping as a big deal. Multiply that by the million cars that use a suburban intersection each year.

Stopping and starting adds 5-10 seconds to a trip, or 3 cents at the standard $15 per hour used in transportation planning. Accelerating back to speed takes 2 cents worth of gas (a little over half an ounce). There’s added wear on brakes, transmission, and tires which is hard to quantify. But I doubt the economic cost is less than 5 cents or much more than 10 cents.

Pitch a dime in the trash every time you see a car. It adds up.

There is also pavement wear, noise, and pollution, but that is mostly felt locally. The residents who demanded the stop sign can judge its cost for themselves.

But they should compensate society for the harm they’ve done, and that is worth over $20,000 per year, or more than a half million dollars over the predictable future. (Sadly, Back to the Future’s flying car won’t be ready by 2015, but maybe in 2040…)

If city officials believe that the stop sign is needed to save a life, they’ll gladly pay. Investing $20,000 per year to save a life every 50 years is very cost-effective.

They won’t pay. Stop signs aren’t really for safety. Stop signs are a cheap way to win votes and exert control over people. If they cost as much as traffic signals city councilors would ask “should we?” instead of “can we?” City traffic engineers would take their jobs seriously instead of being yes men. The DPW would trim hedges for safety instead of growing them to create obstructions to justify stop signs.

The Oostwestthuisbest offered cities $10,000 if oos’s engineering-based approach to reducing red-light violations didn’t do better than cameras. There were no takers. Cameras are used because they are at worst cheap and at best highly profitable. Politicians vote for cameras even when their own people tell them cameras can’t work. In most situations cameras are worse than doing nothing at all, so they can’t be better than doing something productive.

If there were a similar challenge for stop signs it would also be impossible for most cities to collect. A typical new stop sign goes at an intersection with no accident history and no traffic delays. The signs are a way to buy off abutters at a cost of $500 out of the city’s budget and $500,000 from drivers whose opinions were never considered.

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