Japan was all atwitter last week when President Obama paid his first official visit to Tokyo. No expense was spared on the ground, as far as I could tell: the police presence, normally much less visible than in any major US city, seemed to increase by tenfold overnight. The blue suits were on high alert in every subway and train station, even ones at some remove from the President’s intended route. All in all, the President seemed to make a favorable impression here, however, scoring big points with his deep bow to the Emperor and the Empress. Dick Cheney, by contrast, shook hands with Emperor Akihito when it was his turn. It kind of says something about the differing styles of Democrats and Republicans; I’m not sure what, but definitely something.
In the previous paragraph, I mentioned that typically the police are not as thick on the ground here as in other major cities worldwide. This is interesting for a couple of reasons: first, Tokyo has an exceptionally low crime rate, which is a bit counterintuitive when measured against the decidedly moderate police presence; and second, the odds of getting in trouble here for some minor infraction are virtually nil. Except that nobody seems to commit any minor infractions. Cigarette butts cast to the sidewalk? Doesn’t happen, at least not with any sort of regularity. And there aren’t refuse containers to be found anywhere, so basically you have to carry your stash of trash back home with you, and people do this routinely. Spitting, littering, yelling? Nope. Speeding, coasting through a stop sign? Not so much; most smaller intersections are unmarked, and folks entering from any direction slow down appropriately, looking both ways before proceeding, common sense trumping any rule of law. Consider this: in the four years I have been here, I have only once seen a car pulled over by a policeman. Only once. In four years. And I am not even sure that it was for a traffic offense; the driver’s car may simply have broken down and the cop stopped to help out. This set me to thinking, what portion of an average city budget in the US is comprised of traffic fines, because clearly Tokyo’s is next to nil. I Googled this pressing question and was greeted by the webpage of tiny Lincolnshire, IL, incorporated 1957, population 6108 as of the 2000 census. Would you care to guess how much of Lincolnshire’s revenue is derived from traffic tickets on an annual basis? $315,000 (per their website), about the same amount as would be generated if every Lincolnshire man, woman and child received a $50 ticket once a year, plus a bit more for parking violations. And get this, Lincolnshire is not even an egregious example. There are towns throughout the US that generate half their annual budgets (in some cases more) from issuing traffic tickets!
Personally, I’d rather just pay my $50 “traffic infraction fee” annually, and not have to worry about coasting a stop sign at an empty intersection or going 40mph in a 35mph zone. I think a lot of folks would sign on for a plan like that; it would leave the cops available to deal with serious crimes instead of annoying and potentially dangerous traffic stops, and help with budget planning as well, a win-win for all concerned.