The Boy-Racer Moral Panic

The New Zealand government is cracking down on those anti-social youths:

“Images of young people using their cars to race, intimidate, make excessive noise, generally threaten the public, are an unwanted feature of many communities in this country.” [Prime Minister John Key] says. He says his government will not watch by without trying to combat it.

Key says he makes no apologies for the harsh consequences either. (…)

Transport Minister Steven Joyce, who introduced the Enforcement Powers Bill, said illegal street racing was a national problem.

“As well as threatening public safety, illegal street racers cause excessive noise, disruption and intimidation.” (…)

“The Government and the public have lost patience with drivers who use their vehicles in an anti-social manner.”

The Vehicle Confiscation and Seizure Bill will:

-Allow vehicles to be seized and destroyed as a new penalty for illegal street racing
-Allow vehicles repeatedly used by people with overdue traffic fines to be seized and sold to pay those fines
-Enable Police and Courts to target illegal street racers who commit offences in another person’s vehicle

The Land Transport (Enforcement Powers) Amendment Bill will include provisions to:

– Allow local authorities to create bylaws that prevent vehicles repeatedly “cruising” city streets
– Allow the compulsory impoundment of vehicles involved in illegal street racing
– Introduce demerit points for noise offences, licence breaches and registration plate offences. This will ensure repeat offenders will lose their licenses, rather than just accrue fines.

I find the focus on ‘intimidation’ and ‘anti-social’ driving rather troubling. The legislation is pandering to the same sort of bigoted public sentiment which fueled prior panics over rock & roll, punk, etc.

I’m no car enthusiast myself (I drive an ’83 Corona, for what it’s worth) and in no way condone dangerous driving. But we already have laws against dangerous driving and street racing, and it’s not clear to me the penalties are too light. My main problem with the law, though, is that it does more than simply crack down on dangerous driving. Being able to lose your driving license for having your car stereo too loud seems ridiculous, as does allowing councils to stop drivers from ‘cruising’ city streets.

This legislation is not primarily about road safety, but the moral distaste many people have for spiky-haired hoodlums in loud and garish cars. I, for one, think it’s a bigoted piece of populist crap.

2 Responses

  1. The bill is a mess of course. However, this raises an issue for Libertrarians; where to draw the line:-

    A The right not to be physically harmed by another person.
    B ………………………… terrified…………………………….
    C …………………………. intimidated ……………………….
    D …………………………. offended …………………………

    I would draw the line above D and below C.

    I suggest that boy-racer activitly ranges from below D to C and occasionally B. Dealing with it legally cannot be easy, but it is (sometimes) a crime because it is not victimless. Existing laws don’t cope well, because existing laws struggle to isolate deliberate intimidation – at least not unless an authoratative witness (such as a policeman) is present.

    • Whether someone feels intimidated (or even terrified) has as much to do with the intimated as the intimidator. I’m sure lots of people feel intimidated by black people, but that’s no reason to ban black people from coming out in public. You’re right that it’s not clear where to draw the line, but it seems to me that most boy racers aren’t intentionally trying to intimidate anyone. If young people are just hanging around in groups and driving loud cars, which is what most people seem to be up in arms about, I’m inclined to say it’s the intimidated person’s problem.

      People need to live with other’s quirks and annoying habits. Law can’t solve the fundamental problem of social interconnection, but can only deal with the most severe violations of human decency. Unless someone is actively and intentionally threatening to use violence against another, I think the law needs to remain silent.

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