No Fixed Abode: Here Comes The Private-Private Partnership
If you’re a driver in a major urban area, you probably already know all about the nasty creature known as the “public-private partnership.” In a nutshell, it’s a way for a private company to make money by issuing you citations on behalf of a municipality. There isn’t space on these electronic pages to detail the many ways in which public-private partnerships have veered off the tracks into profiteering, racketeering, bribery, and many other forms of outright criminality. In a way, it’s entirely appropriate; after all, the original “public-private partnership” was the European Letter Of Marque that permitted any yahoo with a sailboat and a cannon or two to become a “privateer” — in other words, a pirate.
It seems only reasonable that someone would eventually come up with a “private-private partnership” that uses technology to defend the hapless motorist rather than burden him further. Something similar happened years ago with radar and laser guns: insurance companies, including GEICO, gave free laser guns to the police in the hopes that the guns would be used to write tickets and thus enable them to raise the rates of their customers. At the same time, Cincinnati Microwave and other companies were selling radar detectors that cost more than a speeding ticket but less than the inevitable insurance hike.
The modern successor to Mike Valentine and Cincinnati Microwave: A 19-year-old with a website, of course.
The site is called Do Not Pay and it offers you a way to fight your parking ticket at no cost by answering a few simple questions. After you do that, Do Not Pay will send an automated appeal on your behalf. Joshua Browder, the 19-year-old who came up with the idea, says 160,000 tickets have been successfully appealed out of the 250,000 or so that have been entered into the system. You only pay the website if your ticket is vacated.
Do Not Pay is expanding into refunds for delayed flights and other more complex legal situations including divorce, but the success of the basic app shows there is money to be made on the private side of traffic law as well as the public side.
It’s not the first website or app to offer these services. Fixed, a site offering similar services for parking and traffic tickets, had quite a bit of success raising capital a few years ago. Unfortunately, this private-private partnership ran into problems on all sides, from San Francisco’s unethical but inventive ways of blocking Fixed from acting on a customer’s behalf to a bunch of attorneys claiming the very idea of an app doing automated “legal work” is illegal on its face. Eventually, Fixed was sold to some attorneys who turned it into a front end for conventional legal referrals. So much for the brave new world. Your local attorney might be a big fan of “disruption” as it relates to everything from manufacturing to bookstores, but he has no interest in letting his own business model be disrupted.
There are, of course, plenty of objections to services like Do Not Pay, most of them centering around the idea that municipalities don’t have the manpower or ability to respond to a large number of contested tickets. The system only “works” if the vast majority of people just pay their ticket and forget about it. This imperial expectation of quiet compliance is part and parcel of any ticketing operation designed to increase revenue rather than promote public safety, but it’s particularly critical to the public-private partnerships where the margins are lower on both sides of the trough. I was told some time ago that pretty much anybody who bothered to contest one of Chicago’s infamous red-light tickets wound up having their charges dismissed. In much the same way that Dell reportedly loses money on a new-computer sale the minute a human support representative picks up a phone somewhere, the red-light camera process was unprofitable if the mark had the temerity to contest the charge.
The Do Not Pay site might end up suffering the same fate as Fixed, but this is too good an idea not to eventually be sorted out by an Amazon-like tech giant. My guess is that future versions of the service will sit there and literally talk you through the process of filing the appeal, perhaps with an expert system typing in the details for you and your input only truly required for the signature. That would bypass concern trolling from the legal community while still making the service usable for anyone who is intelligent enough to play Candy Crush on their phone.
It’s not too hard to envision a future where both sides of the ticketing business continually up their game until each and every moment you spend behind the wheel of your car leads to a flurry of artificial-intelligence action from municipal bots seeking to fine you for non-signaled lane changes even as your own bots fire back with pro forma challenges of jurisdiction and measurement technique. Once a month or so you’ll get a combined statement telling you which citations were vacated and which were upheld. Millions of interactions will be passionately argued without so much as a single human neuron involved. There’s only one certainty: the overall financial burden on the motorist will increase. Just as it has been increasingly steadily for more than 60 years now.
I can’t tell you where the money will go, but I know where it will come from — and so do you.
More by Jack Baruth
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