Jonathan Zimmerman: Curse of the Traffic Courts

Roundup: Historians' Take

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University and lives in Narberth. He is the author of "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory" (Yale University Press). He can be reached at

'Americans have made the worst botch of government in the recorded history of the world." So declared Harvard president Charles W. Eliot in 1910, citing "the daily report of automobile accidents" in the country. He concluded, "In no other civilized land could you find such a record of official incompetence or indifference."

The solution was a new institution, the traffic court - which in turn brought new forms of incompetence and indifference. Witness the recent report on Philadelphia's Traffic Court, which found "two tracks of justice": one for the connected and the other for everyone else.

In the dance of dishonesty, though, it takes two to tango: You can't have crooked officials without citizens who sway them from the straight and narrow. For almost a century, Americans have bribed, begged, and wheedled their way out of traffic tickets. People who never think of evading other kinds of justice will eagerly do so when their automobiles are involved....

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