NJ Town Plans to Fine Drivers Who Use Their Streets Via Navigation Apps

P. Gardner Goldsmith | January 10, 2018

Remember the old film cliché of the hero driving through a southern town and being pulled over by a corrupt cop who says, “Boah! You know what town this is? We don’t drive like that here!”

Subsequently, the cop demands a payoff, and the hero gets to continue on his heroic way. Sometimes.

The setting might be farther north, but drivers from outside Leonia, New Jersey who use city streets as shortcuts to get to the George Washington Bridge are about to experience something similar.

According to Dave Carlin, of CBS2 New York, the burgh of Leonia is stipulating that 60 town streets are “off limits” to people whose navigation apps tell them to roll their fancy cars along them. Those caught subverting the new ordinance will receive a $200 fine.

Mayor Judah Zeigler told CBS2:

“The main reason and driver behind this legislation is to get the navigational apps like Waze, Google Maps and others to remove our side streets from their algorithms and not offer them as recommendations… They will do that once this legislation takes effect.”

Oh, really?

So the idea is that enough people will be stopped by the police that the app users will complain, and the app companies will either put up warnings about the high fines, thus warding off potential travelers, or the companies will take those routes off their app lists entirely.

This is tricky stuff.

One can understand the frustration of residents who see lengthy traffic jams on their residential roads when they try to get to and from work themselves, or see the safety issues for families with kids living along the routes, but where does this stop?

Is this merely a matter of the towns trying to manage something that’s popped up due to technology, or are there certain principles at stake, one way or the other?

Beyond the resources that will be needed to police such an ordinance, there’s the Everest-high difficulty of trying to prove in court that a person was using a navigation app while driving those roads. This would require the government to get access to the phone, which, based on the wording of the U.S. Constitution, would require the police to get a warrant from a judge prior to the attempt. It’s all based on a wild, barely understood, and rarely cited or seen creature called the Fourth Amendment. Look for it sometime. Politicians often don’t.

The mayor says that folks who don’t have residency stickers on their vehicles could be pulled over and asked by cops if they have business in town.

So echoes of the old movies aren’t far off, after all. As Carlin writes, Zeigler believes that the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the power of localities to cut off access to roads, as long as emergency vehicles and residents have access.

But what of relatives who are visiting? What of sight-seers? What of delivery trucks headed into town, but going by different routes? What if a passer-through gets gas or food in the area and pays a local tax, or lives in NJ, and pays taxes to the state that are then spent to subsidize local streets in Leonia? Does that person not have a right to drive on the roads for which his tax cash was taken?

There are a lot of variables to suss, and putting this into the hands of politicians will make things very one-sze-fits-all. Already, we can see that some NJ people who will give portions of their tax cash to run the roads all over the state will not be allowed to use them.

Critics of the free market often ask economists, “Who would build the roads?” This also implies, “Who would manage and police the roads?”

Perhaps the folks in Leonia could look to American history for that answer. In early America, thousands of miles of roads were created privately, without use of eminent domain, and without tax money, and the people who ran those roads could set the stipulations for how they would be run. Problems like this will be intractable, and most folks won’t want to shift so far from public management of roads to return to those days of early America, but those lessons from history are informative.

And situations like that popping up in Leonia will continue to offer folks interested in solving the problems some very good foundational information to compare what works and what doesn’t.