Carpool Lane

Carpool  Lane

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Phil Laak on re-checking the maths.

If you are going to gamble, it is not only important to do the maths, but to also re-check the maths every so often. Let me explain.

In California we have freeways. They call them highways on the East Coast because of tolls, but here in the hippy, dippy, trippy world of California, they’re called freeways. This is because - yup, you guessed it - the highways are free. The freeways here often have carpool lanes and if Johnny Law catches you in one during rush hour it will set you back $481. A minimum of two people must be in the car for it to travel in the carpool lane. Additionally, you will be late to wherever you were going and in some cases you’ll also end up in a traffic school class (costing an extra $25) to avoid higher insurance costs.

The steep fine does the trick for most. A $481 ticket is just too pricey. Just knowing it is against the law is plenty for many to avoid the carpool lane, while others are tempted but never pull the trigger. Then there are the occasional few who look at it as more of a maths problem than anything else. This used to be me. The equation I needed to work out was a simple one.

Cost Per Ride = Chance of Getting Pulled Over x Costs Associated With Getting Caught

From 2000 to 2002, I made the twice-weekly commute from my place to Lucky Chances Casino. The 90-minute ride was cut to a mere 30 minutes when I was willing to skirt the law and hop into the carpool lane. But what if I made a habit of it? What would my average cost per ride be? I guessed that I was about a 5% chance per trip of getting caught, so I was able to estimate the actual cost per ride. The fine back then was about $350, but I factored in additional costs of $150. Even at $500, getting caught 5% of the time would make the true cost of riding the carpool lane just $25. Was that all? Sign me up! At the time, it felt like a bargain.

I rode that carpool lane with zero cognitive dissonance. I never got pulled over either! For two years straight, I never even had a sweat. A combination of running good and being way off in guessing I’d be nailed 5% of the time saw me take 200 rides and never once get caught. To this day, I am filled with warmth and satisfaction whenever I think about it. I find it interesting that such a small victory can have such a lasting glow over a full decade later.

Ok, big deal. I beat the system for a bit. Whoop-de-do. What is all the fuss about re-checking the maths?

Last week, I found myself in rush hour traffic and happened to have a decent pile of cash with me. This is a rare event as I am a huge fan of just wiring the money across whenever the amount is significant. As I was crossing over to the carpool lane I had a pre-cognitive flash of what a disaster it would be if I got nailed for being in the wrong lane and had my pile of cash taken from me. Civil Forfeiture popped into my mind and it got me thinking for sure.

What is civil forfeiture and how does it change things? Civil forfeiture law allows the government to take cash, cars, homes and other property suspected of being involved in criminal activity. The property owner does not have to be charged with a crime to permanently lose his property. Nor does the car owner.

I encourage you to watch a very funny and incredibly eye-opening video. Go to You Tube and search for ‘Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Civil Forfeiture’ It is both funny and informative. The amounts being seized keep increasing year after year and as I pondered over whether or not to pull into the carpool lane, I realized that I was keen on keeping my cash in my hands, not the governments.

The cost of getting caught was way too high now. Even though I had run well with the carpool lane gambit, this was no time to toy with the Gods of justice. The idea that a $481 driving infraction could somehow lead to a civil forfeiture case was a super long shot. But it was enough to tip the scales. Had I gambled and somehow lost my pile of cash, I think I would still have found a way to laugh about it. But I resolved to keep a wide berth. I embraced the rush hour traffic.

I settled in for a snails-pace ride along with my fellow law-abiding citizens. The traffic did not tilt me that day, in fact, it was just the opposite. I was enveloped with a feeling of comfort as I safely got that cash to where it was going.

Here’s the moral of the story. If you solve a problem once, that’s great, but be sure to make proper adjustments along the way. Oh, and not to kill an ant with a sledgehammer, but you really should check out that John Oliver video. It is no accident that it has over four million views.

Tags: Phil Laak