Opinion: Clearing the Air About Unenforceable Policies

Opinion: Clearing the Air About Unenforceable Policies

by Kristina Victoreen

Is a policy without enforcement really a policy, or is it just an aspiration? That question has been on my mind lately, in two different contexts, both related to the air we breathe. First, there’s Penn’s new “Tobacco-free Campus” policy. I first noticed the signs in November, when they quietly popped up here and there around campus. As someone who has spent many a lunch hour going from bench to bench all around campus in an often-vain attempt to find a place to sit and eat my lunch without having to breathe second-hand smoke, I was really excited to see those signs. But I confess I was much less excited when I went online and read the actual policy, particularly the section on enforcement. You can read it here.

What it seems to say is that there is no enforcement, and if you have any questions, ask the person you report to or your Dean. In other words, Penn wants you to not smoke but if you do, probably nothing will happen. This idea that the policy won’t be enforced, was confirmed in Rahul Chopra’s December 3rd DP article, in which Frank Leone, Director of the Comprehensive Smoking Treatment Program at Perelman School of Medicine, was quoted as stating that "There's not going to be enforcement or an effort to corral smokers." So Penn’s idea is to try to change the norms, and also provide supports for those who are trying to quit, perhaps partly by removing some of the triggers. For example, the smoking pole outside Van Pelt Library has been removed and replaced with a sign, with the expectation that folks won’t just stand where the pole used to be and drop their cigarette buts on the ground. I’m definitely not an expert on smoking cessation or behavioral economics principles and I know lots of research and some testing went into choosing this approach. Presumably robust baseline data have been collected on smoking behaviors, so that the success of the program can be measured with real outcomes, and I will be very interested to see the results, (and to enjoy a smoke free outdoor lunch when the weather gets warmer.) Certainly it’s no longer unusual to use "nudge" techniques to try to elicit desired behaviour changes, and such policies are popular because they are non-coercive and can be very cost effective. The alternative would be to have the campus police enforce the tobacco policy, and I’m guessing that this may be viewed by the Administration as much more trouble than it's worth, perhaps alienating the people the policy targets, and diverting resources from campus police who have other more pressing concerns. 

In Philadelphia, diesel and other vehicles are subject to several anti-idling laws, enforced (in theory) by different agencies. You can see them all in one place at this helpful site from Pennsylvania Diesel Difference. For example, you can be issued a ticket for $101 by the Philadelphia Parking Authority for excessive idling, and the Department of Health’s Air Management Services can issue a citation to the operator of a heavy duty diesel truck, bus or other vehicle under a separate law, for idling over 2 minutes. There are many exceptions, having to do with things like ambient temperature, (look here for the details) which make the laws incredibly difficult to enforce even if any agency were inclined to enforce them. In addition to Philadelphia’s laws, Pennsylvania has a separate diesel idling law that can be enforced by the State Police. Confused yet? Here’s an experiment to try. Next time you see a PPA agent giving out tickets, try to report an idling vehicle. You might get a quizzical look. I tried this only once, but the PPA officer I asked did not seem to have heard of the anti-idling law. There are a few No Idling signs here and there, but you have to look hard to find them. Thanks to the Clean Air Council, there is a web site where anyone can report an idling vehicle. But it’s doubtful that citations will be issued on the basis of only a citizen complaint, especially without a video to show how long the vehicle idled, and the citizen needs to know the law and be willing to do the reporting.

In short, there are many laws, little enforcement, and no incentive for compliance. So what’s the solution? Should the City be employing nudge methods, and/or trying to change the culture around idling? What would it take to do that? Should the PPA be issuing tickets? I am guessing that a $100 ticket may be seen as a reasonable cost of doing business for the operator of even a small fleet. What about higher fines? According the the New York State web site, there you can be fined up to $18,000 for a first offense with certain idling violations. It seems that steep fines might generate funds to pay for some grants for replacing older engines and doing clean diesel retrofits, but you still need enforcement in order to collect those fines. So at least in the case of vehicle emissions, it appears that policies without enforcement sometimes amount to little more than hope, and as Rudy Giuliani famously said, hope is not a strategy.