Helmets, Tinted Glasses and Low Hanging Fruit

I’m opposed to the law that makes wearing of helmets and seatbelts mandatory for two wheeler and four wheeler drivers (respectively). I might have argued earlier that they cause perverse incentives (a driver wearing a seatbelt is likely to feel “safer” and thus drive more rashly, causing more collateral damage). There is another important reason I add now – these provide too much low hanging fruit for cops to provide them enough incentive to go after real crime. Let me explain.

Cops are an overworked and underpaid lot. So they try to improve their lot by extracting rents wherever possible. So you have random traffic cops flagging you down to “check your documents” so that some deficiency can be pointed out and a fast buck can be made. Or you have (non-traffic) cops “inspecting” bars to ensure that excise rules are being followed – once again to make a fast buck. What Inspector Dhoble and co in Mumbai are doing is to similarly go after low hanging fruit – easy targets who they can “catch” and hopefully make a fast buck of.

While rules such as compulsory helmets, not having tinted glasses and drinking permits might be desirable from the social perspective (even that is highly debatable), the bigger damage such rules do is to over-stress an already overworked police force. Policemen have a choice between doing “real” police work which could actually lead to reduction of crime, but which may not pay in terms of “rents”; and the “low-hanging fruit” work which may not go that far in controlling crime but allows the policeman to make a fast buck. Given the general stress that goes with being a policeman, it is no surprise if most policemen would opt to do the latter kind of work.

One obvious solution is to expand the police force, provide better training and better pay so that policemen spend more of their time spending real crime. But that involves strategic changes which might take a long time to put in place. Police reforms are important and the sooner we start them the better. However, it needs to be recognized that it’s a long-term project ¬†and has a long gestation period.

So what needs to be done to increase police efficiency in the short run? Cut opportunities for policemen to pick the low hanging fruit. Repeal the helmet and seatbelt laws, stop summary stopping of vehicles and document checking (except for drunken driving) and shift to a notice-and-voucher system, repeal archaic laws that allow policemen to disturb business, legalize prostitution and the like.

We already have an over-stretched police force. We don’t need further stretching by means of increasing their workload. Simplify the rules and make it easier for policemen to implement them, and crime is more likely to drop that way.