This post originally appeared at the Good Government blog.
I followed a fire truck for about a mile on the way to work today. The fire truck didn’t have its sirens wailing or its lights flashing — it looked like it was just heading back to the station, maybe after a rescue or maybe after breakfast. As I sat behind it at a stop light, I noticed the words emblazoned on the back of the truck in very large letters:
KEEP BACK 500 FEET
The light turned green and as the truck pulled through the intersection, I held back, following at a much slower speed. I tried to put 500 feet of distance between my car and the fire truck in front of me.
How far is 500 feet? Well, a football field is 300 feet long, so this was 1-2/3 the length of a football field. That would be quite a distance — and I was certainly closer to the truck than that. As I pulled back, further and further, trying to put 500 feet between us, I thought: “Nobody really does this. Nobody keeps back 500 feet from a fire truck.”
I wondered — what is the law here? Can I get a citation, a fine, a court date, for following a fire truck at less than 500 feet? The answer is probably “Yes” — I say “probably” because I didn’t do the research. But here was a very large admonition, in very large letters, clearly stating that I am obligated to KEEP BACK 500 FEET from this fire truck.
How many laws do we have, on the books, that nobody observes? How many laws are never enforced, because they are outdated, because they aren’t taken seriously? And if these laws were suddenly enforced rigorously — if every car within 500 feet of the back of a fire truck was suddenly pulled over and cited — what would come of those laws? Would they stand up? Or would the courts dismiss the citations as “silly” but leave the law in place? Or would the lawmakers repeal the laws?
This may all sound somewhat silly — but, in fact, there are many laws in effect that are ignored, both by the populace that is charged with obeying the law and the police that are charged with enforcing the law. Most — like the law that prohibits tying a mule to the same hitching post as a horse — are long out-of-date. Some — like a law prohibiting certain sexual activities — are ignored until someone has an axe to grind.
We are taught — at least, back in the day, when I went to grade school — that laws must be obeyed and that the whole of government was built to make sure people obeyed laws. But that puts an obligation on the law-makers to ensure that the laws make sense, that the community as a whole accepts the importance of the law and that the law is evenly enforced. Without this even-handedness in the making and enforcing of the law, the law itself becomes weak.
Good government is hard work — it requires that law-makers keep up with the changing attitudes of the populace and the changing technologies and behaviors that permeate society. It’s largely drudgery — but that drudgery is essential to keeping “follow the law” a reasonable rule. And reasonable rules are essential to good government.