04 February 2006

Op-ed: My parking-ticket protest.

[This piece first appeared on the Commentary page of the Austin American-Statesman on November 26, 2005.]

Have you ever gotten a ticket for parking within 30 feet of a stop sign? I got one last week. Until the moment I read the citation on the ticket, I had no idea any such parking rule existed. No such rule should exist, as I hope I'll convince you.

Part of my reaction is emotional. My driving record is excellent, and (touch wood) I have never had even a fender bender. (Well, I once crashed my friend's go-kart into his garage door, but I was 11 at the time.) My children are used to hearing me caution my fellow motorists: "That's not good. . . . Don't do that. . . . Oh! That's dangerous!"

This matches my personality. Growing up, my friends always thought that I was too respectful of rules. I never drank a beer until I was old enough to buy one myself. I never smoked pot. I never snuck out of my parents' house. And I never park in a no-parking zone. When it comes to rules, I'm as square as they come.

This can be a trial for me these days, since I am a graduate student at the University of Texas. Most weekdays, I end up cruising a particular circuit of residential streets north of the campus, looking for a free space. There are countless hazards: hidden driveways, yellow curbs, Dumpsters, and a forest of warning signs. No parking. Two-hour parking only. (I have three-hour seminars.) Parking for residents only. Loading and unloading only, five-minute limit.

So I circle. On the day of my ticket, I found a spot just off of 31st Street. No yellow curb, no warning sign, a long-accumulated oil stain from all the cars that had parked there before. For that matter, I had parked there before with no problem. When I came back from my class, I found the little bright-yellow envelope with the ticket inside. I had to read the citation twice before it even dawned on me that, yes, I was within 30 feet of a stop sign — within four feet, in fact.

This is law enforcement by trick, not legitimate enforcement. When you speed, you know you are speeding. You see the speed limit, you cruise along with traffic a little above it, and you take the calculated risk that going 51 in a 45 won't get you a ticket this time. Even I, the lover of rules, do this.

But in this case? No. The rule is ludicrous, should not exist, and must be nearly unknown among drivers. The oil stain on the ground indicates that years' worth of Austin car-parkers have looked at this little piece of real estate and said, "Hey, good parking place!" But now some industrious ticket-writer, who no doubt would claim merely to be doing his or her job, has discovered a gravy train for tickets to issue. I've now seen three other cars get tickets in that spot.

I am a liberal in most of my politics. I believe that in many cases a little bit of government intervention, wisely applied, can do some good. This is how we got the Interstate highway system. This is how we built UT and created Austin's beautiful parks. We can get even more grandiose: this is how the federal government backed up the efforts of heroes like the late Rosa Parks to break down the Jim Crow system in the South.

But what was Jim Crow? It was a system of arbitrary laws designed not to help the population to live better or prosper, but to dispense a brand of "justice" that had nothing to do with health, safety, education or welfare — much less the genuine item of justice.

Of course, my dinky little parking ticket doesn't rise to the level of Jim Crow — not by a million miles. No, it's only a small thing. But it is a thing that erodes my confidence that the government is supposed to be looking out for society's best interests. Instead it makes me think that the government is happy to trick me into breaking an unknown rule so it can collect an extra buck.

I don't want a parking ticket on my record — I love rules, remember? — so I mailed in my $20. Consider this column my moment of protest.

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