When we get behind the wheel, many of us feel like something of an expert.  And when it comes to the streets in our neighborhoods, we know the lay of the land, the best shortcuts to take, and perhaps most importantly, we know which stop signs we can get away with running.  So why not just turn people loose on their neighborhood streets?

That’s exactly what they’re doing in Sunriver, Oregon, according to a story in Saturday’s Seattle Times.  Residents in the community of 2,000 will no longer have to fear being stopped for “minor infractions” in the 5-square mile area that makes up Sunriver.  The roads in Sunriver are privately-owned, but are open to the public.  The Sunriver Service District has voted to limit law enforcement’s ambit to “serious traffic offenses” such as drunk driving and reckless operation.   Residents of Sunriver are now free to coast above the speed limit, breeze through the occasional stop sign, and pay no mind to the irritating flicker of that broken turn signal.

And while drivers in Sunriver celebrate this decision by perfecting their “rolling stop,” there are no doubt those who are dismayed by the situation.  After all, how does an officer know what’s “reckless” and what’s not?  Why should we allow the denizens of these private streets to so blatantly break the law?

My first inclination is to reply very simply: “why not?”   First, these are private roads, so any argument about civic obligation stemming from shared roadways is bound to fail.  Second, and perhaps more importantly, state and local bodies should always enjoy the ability to experiment.  John Stuart Mill is famous for praising “experiments in living” as a means to develop better government.  And our own federal system rests on the notion that local entities must compete with the federal government for the affections of the people.   If Sunriver wants to let its citizens run stop signs why not let them?

At this point, we might hear arguments that it’s “crazy” to let people run stop signs.  While this is an appealing common-sense argument, it is dangerous because it assumes that our traffic laws are somehow “natural.”  Traffic laws, like any other area of health and safety regulations, are simply tools that states and municipalities use to achieve certain goals.  They naturally shift according to the local context and the goals being served (compare Montana’s speed limits to Connecticut’s; California’s health care spending to Alaska’s).  For this reason, these laws are best determined at the local level and are not some sort of unimpeachable “right” that cannot be taken away by the legislative will of a particular area.  As evidenced by this new law, it looks like Sunriver’s interest in maintaining safe roads is no longer being served by nit-picky traffic rules.

Federalism means that states and municipalities have the right to set up different laws, and maybe it also means that they have the power to get rid of them altogether.  At least that’s what I’ll think until I can hear a good argument otherwise.

Daniel Corbett