About a week ago, I was driving North on Quebec Street in Denver, and I came to a stop in the left-turn lane that would take me onto Leetsdale Drive.
I waited patiently for the green arrow that would give me the right of way. I wasn’t sure if my arrow would come immediately after the North-South through lanes completed, or if the people going East & West on Leetsdale would be up next.
It turned out that the East-West Leetsdale traffic was next, so I relaxed and waited.
As the Leetsdale lights turned yellow, I felt my foot easing off the brake. I was ready for the green arrow, and ready to continue my journey.
But I didn’t get a green arrow. Instead my arrow stayed red, and the green lights for the North-South through traffic turned on again.
“Hey!” I said. "We got skipped!"
Okay. No big deal. When the through traffic is done, we’ll get the light.
The East-West Leetsdale traffic got the green light.
We’d been skipped twice!
I immediately understood that the timer or the sensor in the light was broken. We couldn’t rely on that light to give us safe passage through the intersection, so I started formulating my plan of escape.
If the light skipped us for a third time, then I was going to make an illegal u-turn or muscle my way over into the through lane or simply run the light and make my left turn through a gap in traffic.
Fortunately, the light didn’t skip us a third time. We got a green arrow, and off we went.
We’ve all been in this situation. It might be a traffic light that’s not working or a train that comes to a complete stop on a railroad crossing or a car accident that grinds traffic to a stand-still.
When you’re stuck in that situation, how long do you wait before you break the law?
How long before you make an illegal u-turn or illegally cross the median or illegally run the light?
Suppose a police officer saw you make that illegal u-turn and he pulled you over. Would you expect him to listen to your story, understand your plight and let you go with just a warning?
What if he did give you a ticket? Would you think it was fair? Would you get angry? What if you challenged the ticket in court, but the judge ignored your complaints about the faulty traffic light and enforced the ticket?
What if a bunch of people kept telling the authorities about the broken traffic light, but it was never fixed? Not for days, not for weeks, not for months, not for decades.
What if the government’s response was: “There are a lot of people breaking the law in this intersection, so we need more police officers assigned to that area.”
What if more police officers arrived and made more traffic stops, and issued more tickets, and provoked the ire of more drivers who thought the system was unfair to them?
What if other drivers -- the people who never need to turn left off of Quebec onto Leetsdale -- had no idea about the problem, because they always breezed right through the intersection, and when the left-turn people told them about the issue, the other drivers just didn't believe it?
What if we reached the point at which the police officers became so jaded, that they felt the act of simply being “angry” constituted a crime? What if the officers were pulling people out of their cars, because they didn’t like the driver’s tone of voice or didn’t think the driver was showing the officer sufficient respect?
What if this escalation from conversation to physical force was guaranteed to produce resistance, because the drivers don’t feel that they’ve done anything wrong? What if these drivers resisted, because they felt so disrespected by the officer who'd put his hands on them?
What if the officers viewed this resistance as further criminal activity and they used their batons, their tasers, their guns and their knees to subdue a driver who’d made an illegal u-turn at a known defective traffic light?
What if they accidentally killed that driver? What if no one cared? What if no charges were brought against the officers? What if it happened again? And again? And again?
If this happened long enough and it eventually was caught on video, the drivers who normally breezed through the Quebec-Leetsdale intersection might finally realize that something was wrong.
They might finally conclude that sending armed officers to solve little problem in society is a recipe for escallating violence.
As a society, we might eventually decide that it would be better to reduce our spending on police enforcement and allocate more money to traffic light repair.