Whose Safety Goes First?

A few weeks ago, on her way to church in River Falls my wife received a speeding ticket/random-tax-assessment on the fourteen mile unmarked section of speedtrap also known as US 63 between Red Wing, Minnesota and Ellsworth, Wisconsin. She was, as is her habit, not even close to being the fastest moving vehicle on the road at the time the trooper decided to single her out, but she was probably the only non-Wisconsin victim for Pierce County’s uniformed tax assessor.

As a Minnesota motorcyclist, I’ve long known that Wisconsin is one giant speedtrap mostly aimed at out-of-town targets. It’s a well-discussed subject on every internet motorcycle group and one of many reasons that many motorcyclists choose to ride in long, loud, and intimidating pirate parades. The state’s tax assessors are less likely to harass twenty bikers than they are one. However, one reason for the state’s high motorcycle crash/morbidity/mortality rate has to be that riders are keeping an eye out for traffic tax assessors and missing critical hazard factors as a result. If you are suffering the delusion that a 5mph-over-the-limit violation is about highway safety on a road that locals commonly travel at 75mph, you are fooling no one but yourself. If safety were a real concern, drivers’ license tests would be a difficult hurdle for at least half of the people behind a wheel.

After receiving the speeding ticket, we began to evaluate that section of road for both the average speed and the highway markings. The fact is that most of the traffic on US 63 in that area travels at well over 65mph and you will stack up dozens of vehicles if you travel at the unmarked 55mph speed limit. The more telling fact is that the only speed limit sign in 14 miles on that road, from Red Wing to Ellsworth, is right after the Red Wing bridge (a couple of miles before the cynical “Welcome to Wisconsin” sign). That one speed limit sign is carefully placed as close to a bridge barrier as possible to be easily missed. The next Wisconsin speed limit sign appears as you enter Ellsworth.

When my wife appeared in the Pierce County kangaroo court to contest the ticket, she was told by the judge that she should consider it “a privilege” to be allowed to drive on Wisconsin’s highways. When she said the state should consider installing a few speed limit signs to inform visitors that Wisconsin has lower-than-average speed limits, he said “taxes would go up on your cheese, then.” Along with admitting that patrolling this road and randomly enforcing a 55mph speed limit was nothing more than a visitor tax, those statements made it clear that the county (and state) knows it is running an unmarked speedtrap. Even more, the attitude of the two county bureaucrats, a “traffic court administrator” and prosecutor, was clearly one of pride and arrogance. At no time did either of those bureaucrats admit that more rational and fair behavior should be expected of either Pierce County or Wisconsin.

For the nearly two years that we have lived in Red Wing, we’ve travelled to Ellsworth, River Falls, and Hudson several times a week; often spending $75 to $150 shopping at the Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery, local stores, and local restaurants. Since she received that ticket, we’ve rarely made the trip and look for every opportunity to avoid Wisconsin’s $175-per-visit tourist tax. We have avoided purchasing fuel, food, or anything else in or from the state, not as a boycott but simply because this experience has left such a bad feeling about Wisconsin that we simply want to do what we have to do in that state quickly and escape as painlessly and cheaply as possible. The “privilege” of being allowed to travel un-harassed on US highways in Wisconsin has been excessively expensive and there is nothing about being stopped by an armed tax collector that says “Welcome to Wisconsin.”

Having just returned from a 2,800 mile motorcycle trip through Minnesota, Nebraska, South Dakota, Colorado, New Mexico, and Kansas, I can state from experience that a fourteen mile section of unmarked 55mph US highway is unusual, at best. Many states appear to have abandoned Jimmy Carter’s 55mph fuel economy altogether, but every state I visited clearly marked local speed limits. Not doing so is clearly an attempt to generate income for local bureaucrats as ruthlessly as possible and it likely explains, in part, the poor state of Wisconsin’s economy.

Recent events have demonstrated the hazards involved when an armed, nervous, and too often unsuited-for-police-work officer accosts citizens over insignificant infractions of irrational or surreptitious laws designed to generate revenue for governments rather than provide peace and security for the public. Financing local governments with “law enforcement revenue” is dangerous for everyone, except the local governments. Operating under the reasonable premise that “they’ll never uncover this scam before we’re outta her with our pockets stuffed,” the bureaucrats behind this semi-legal highwayman scheme could not care less about the communities that harbor them. If every business goes broke, every citizen leaves town for a better life, if every building falls into ruin, these people will keep doing what they are doing until the money runs out. And when one of the tax asseessors screws up and shoots a motorist because he mistook a billfold for an Glock and the family of that victim rightfully sues the city into bankruptcy, the sharks will take their resume and somewhere else and do it all over again.

The simple fact is, when a local government has screwed up badly enough that there isn’t enough revenue to support the bureaucracy, the only logical move is to reduce the bureaucracy to a size that fits the budget. Nobody in their right mind ever promised government employees lifetime employment. The idea that the last people left in town will be the local cops is well past insane.

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