"Traffic and the Courts: Social Change and Organizational Response," in Herbert
Jacob (ed.) The Potential for Reform of Criminal Justice. Newbury Park, CA: Sage
Publications, 1975, 131-172.
This essay examines the problems of caseload, volume stress, and organizational response in
a particular legal arena.
One of the major challenges to the ability of urban courts to effectively carry out their task has
been the automobile. A most immediate social cost of the automobile, and one which
produces legal problems which threaten to overwhelm local civil courts, is the personal and
property carnage its use creates. Casualties on American highways outnumber those of all
our wars. During both the Korean and Vietnam conflicts highway deaths on the domestic front
outran those on the battlefield. By 1970, even minor automobile damage and the cost in
entailed led to a political dispute of considerable magnitude over the cost and operation of
automobile insurance schemes. At the same time, personal injury cases accumulating in the
courts had created a serious backlog problem. In Chicago, delay averages three to five years,
and no decrease is in sight.
I then examine the regulatory response of the legal system. Regulation of the ownership and
use of the automobile challenges the ability of the city to keep order. Controlling the flow of
motor vehicles through the city demands the attention of numerous police officers and an
armada of vehicles and specialized equipment. They enforce a host of formal rules governing
the use of automobiles, rules which were created to facilitate the use of the automobile in the
city and control its more undesirable consequences.
Finally, I examine the organizational response of the courts to the volume stress this
enforcement effort created. At one point, traffic offenses made up 75 percent of the business
of the municipal court of Chicago. “Crimes” such as double-parking and speeding, serious
social problems in the city, jammed already overloaded dockets, and the court was hard-
pressed to dispose of its business. The eventual response was the creation of specialized,
autonomous branch courts which could process traffic cases with assembly-line efficiency.
The compromises with traditional procedure which this organizational transformation
demanded highlight the difficulty that the legal system has encountered in adjusting to the
realities of urban life. Traffic, like many emerging urban problems, seriously challenges
traditional conceptions of criminality, guilt, the personal responsibility of individuals for their
behavior, and the deterrent impact of punishment upon unlawful behavior. In civil and criminal
traffic cases we witness most clearly the clash between often inappropriate legal models for
the settlement of disputes or the “treatment” of offenders and demands for organizational
efficiency. Reflecting this, future reforms will probably focus not upon further increases in
efficiency, but upon the removal of traffic problems from the courts entirely.