Congestion vs. Law Enforcement

Yesterday in Atlanta, GA, my wife was significantly delayed on her commute home due to a traffic jam on northbound I-75. After she called me, I, being a dutiful husband, checked the traffic conditions on Georgia Navigator. I reported to her that there was an “All-Lanes-Closed-Incident” on southbound I-75 and that she would get past it in a few minutes. Given that she was in the northbound lanes, this was something of note, but not of real concern; it happens fairly frequently around Atlanta that one interstate or another is closed due to a wreck.

Later, Jenn called me to report that the southbound lanes hadn’t been closed due to a collision, but instead because the Cobb County Police department had set up a road block to search for a bank robber. This incident, unsurprisingly, made the news this morning in the Atlanta metro area paper. According to the news report, the Cobb County police had specific information from a GPS tracker in the stolen money that the perpetrator was on I-75 south, which led to the closure and subsequent search of rush hour traffic (the robber was not located).

My first gut reaction to this was, “Is it worth it to cause that much headache and congestion for a non-violent bank robbery?” Just as a guesstimate, with data from GDOT saying that the daily traffic past this point is about 207,000 vehicles, I would say that about 30,000 vehicles experienced at least an additional 20 minutes worth of delay. Do the math and that is 10,000 vehicle-hours of delay due to the stoppage. Throw in a reasonable rate of $15 per hour per vehicle, discounting the huge air-quality impact that this had, and we come up with a figure of $150,000 (assuming only one person per vehicle). Did the robber make off with more than that? If not, than this was not a very good economic call on the part of the Cobb County Police Department.

Of course, not everything boils down to economics, and I certainly don’t want to live in a world that looks like THX-1138, where all decisions are based on budgetary concerns. I applaud the Police for their efforts and the bank for slipping the perpetrator a tracking device. I’m disappointed that he wasn’t caught.

This is a tough question. When is it appropriate to shut down a major artery, be it transportation, water, electric, whatever? Several years ago, we had a rash of suicidal people who would perch on overpasses and threaten to jump. The police and emergency responders had no choice but to shut down the highways below, causing huge disruptions which could be measured in the millions of dollars. The scuttlebutt around town was, “let ‘em jump!” or “shoot ‘em!”, which should tell you the toleration Atlantanites have for people causing congestion (my personal idea was to drive up the interstate with a fire truck and blast the jumper back onto the bridge with a hose, then jump on them).

How do we address the question of public safety vs. public mobility? Should we interrupt the afternoon commute of a major metropolitan area because of a bank robber? Is the life of one person worth two hours of time of 40,000 people? Can we even measure the worth of an incident based upon the perceived economic impact of delay on local commuters? Didn’t everyone who moved to a major metropolitan area consciously sign up for these sorts of delays? Who decides? I hesitate to call this a federal issue because I don’t want to pass any more authority back to Washington, but I also hate to call this a state’s issue because these problems don’t end at state lines, and states often have a raucous history of negotiations.

The one thing that can be stated with certainty in transportation issues is that there is nothing that can be stated with certainty.

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3 Responses to Congestion vs. Law Enforcement

  1. Chris says:

    Of course you haven’t considered the cost of the police personnel, vehicles, and probably aircraft that would have been involved in a search like this. Police choppers probably run in the $1k-2k per hour of use range.
    I want to know why they didn’t just track the suspect until they pulled off onto some side street and pounce on them then. What kind of odd tracking system simply identifies a highway? GPS would be better than that… Does Atlanta have RF ID scanners in their directional signs?

  2. Bill Ruhsam says:

    I don’t know the details of how they located the vehicle. I’ll have to go check the news again.

  3. Pingback: Congestion vs. Law Enforcement II : Talking Traffic

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