An Illusory Intertwingling of Reason and Response

Miscellany: I just like the sound of the word. Don’t you? “Mis cel lan e ous.” I could say it a thousand times a day. The miscellany is where anything in life worth having usually spends most of its time: would you like to hunt for something worthwhile among my miscellany?

Tafel :: miscellany

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

On the Inanity of Funeral Procession Traffic Customs

Of what value is respect granted pro forma? Worse, of what value is respect granted out of coercion? Such respect is all the custom (still legally enforced in many southern states) of stopping or granting the right-of-way — regardless of en-route traffic signals and signs — to funeral processions out of "respect" for the dead and the mourning.

As an example, here's an excerpt from the Georgia Motor Vehicle and Traffic Code Title 40, §40-6-76:

(b) Funeral processions shall have the right of way at intersections ....

(f) The operator of a vehicle not in a funeral procession shall not attempt to pass vehicles in a funeral procession on a two-lane highway.

(g) Any person violating subsection ... (f) of this Code section shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and, upon conviction thereof, shall be punished by a fine not to exceed $100.00.

A funeral procession in Georgia needs no permit to claim the above benefits, and need not even travel with police escort (though such escort is often sought and provided). In exception to this, no other private procession for private purposes can claim the right of (b) without a parade permit and posted public notice.

Arguments from safety are generally made: applying normal right-of-way rules in the case of a procession may cause unsafe situations due to procession members attempting to follow cars ahead of them immediately through intersections. As well, one might say that procession members could be unduly inconvenienced if forced to wait for the right-of-way to fall on them in normal course. However, such arguments dissolve if not applied to all private processions.

Not all states waive the requirement for police escort like Georgia does, but the principle remains: the only reason for this singling-out of funeral processions as unique is sentimental, and sentiment has no place in law.

If you think that's sentimental, (f) is even more blatantly so. While arguments from safety for yielding the right-of-way appear secondary even to a charitable observer, a no-passing rule appears on the surface to be solely based in safety concerns. Indeed, under normal circumstances, one ought not attempt to pass more than a single vehicle at a time on a two-lane highway. However, to fully understand the law, you must consider "the custom as she is practiced"1.

While not required by law, and not even actually permitted (no minimum-speed exception is given as the right-of-way exception), general practice is for funeral processions to move at somewhere between five and twenty miles per hour, regardless of the established speed limits and minimum-speed laws governing the roadway travelled.

Georgia law states that "no person shall drive a motor vehicle at such a slow speed as to impede the normal and reasonable movement of traffic, except when reduced speed is necessary for safe operation."2 However, funeral procession leaders routinely drive half the posted speed limit (and sometimes far less), which quite objectively impedes "the normal and reasonable movement of traffic" when — again, quite objectively — not "necessary for safe operation".

Where does the sentiment in the enforcement of (f) above come in? By rights, at least the hearse driver — if not the entire procession — ought to be fined for obstruction of traffic: a definitely unsafe situation.

They're not, of course, due to sentiment: can you imagine the reelection campaign a sheriff attempting to actually enforce minimum-speed law on funeral processions would face? This turning of a blind eye to the actual agents of this unsafe situation necessitated the explicit prohibition against passing funeral processions, and in turn further elevated sentiment above reason in state law.

"But," some cry, "we're losing respect for others! We're losing respect for tradition!"

As I asked at the beginning, of what value is pro forma respect? I respect many people, all because of something: whether they're teachers, parents, friends, soldiers, or anyone else, they've all done something to warrant my respect.

Nearly anyone would say he wants to be respected, but what he truly wants is to be worthy of respect: respect garnered undeserving is empty.

Is someone inherently worthy of respect because he's dead? Are mourners inherently more respectable because they know someone who died? Of course not: to claim that would be absurd. Yet tantamount to such a claim are the cries for "respect for the dead" and "respect for the bereft".

From a discussion on the opinion section of The Chattanoogan:

... it suddenly occurred to me that I had no idea who was in that hearse being carried to the cemetery.

For all I knew, it could have been a man who beat his wife and children, an adulterer, a drunk, a drug pusher, a gang leader with all his gang buddies riding behind him, or even a murderer.

Can you imagine — and this could have happened — pulling off to the side of the road while paying your respects to those in a funeral procession and later learning that it was the funeral of Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer?

I have no problem showing respect to someone who is truly worthy of it, but I'm doing no one favours by doling out empty, unknowing respect.

The emptiness of pro forma respect would not be a reason not to stop for a funeral procession: it's simply means that "respect" is not a reason to stop. I mention it to point out what is being put forward as more important than safety: namely vain respect.

Southern funeral procession custom does not result in safer roadways: indeed, it results in unsafe situations due to unclear right-of-way and obstruction of traffic. It does not result in true respect being shown, but rather a devaluation of the concept of respect. I'm willing to be inconvenienced if objective reasons can be brought forth to demonstrate the value of my inconvenience; but an objective look reveals Southern funeral procession custom to be damaging both physically and philosophically.

1. "English as She Is Taught", from _[What Is Man? and Other Essays][3]_, by Mark Twain.