Clockwise from left, vehicles near Exit 22 of the Southern...

Clockwise from left, vehicles near Exit 22 of the Southern State Parkway, subway turnstiles, and tax forms. Reckless drivers, fare beaters on trains, and tax evaders all manifest a lack of accountability. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr., Getty Images/iStockphoto/Gerenme, Getty Images/iStockphoto/NoDerog

Last year, the Long Island Rail Road billed riders who failed to pay for their tickets onboard trains a total of $1,384,851. That marks an increase of 31% from 2019, before ridership fell amid the pandemic, official figures show. As Newsday reported, the LIRR collected $59,790 of last year’s delinquent fares, a minuscule percentage. Many other nonpayers surely escaped detection.

New York City subway riders see so much fare evasion, it's as if paying is voluntary. Turnstiles are jumped and exit gates held open for free entrance, without concern for consequence, even if cops are on hand.

The drain on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority from fare-beating costs the LIRR, subways, buses, and Metro-North Railroad about $700 million a year. Other transit systems report similar woes. Officials in Washington said 34% of Metrobus riders didn’t pay fares in 2022, up from 14% in 2019. In Los Angeles, policymakers view the problem as one part of a more general disorder on the system.

The more riders see others cheat, the more they have reason to feel like suckers for dutifully paying their share. Beyond the lost transit revenue lurks a broad-based cynicism about an individual’s basic obligations to the rest of the community, an attitude that fuels tax avoidance, shoplifting, driving too fast, driving impaired, driving distracted, littering, and other unhealthy behaviors.

TAX DODGERS

For fiscal impact, no situation surpasses the so-called tax gap. The IRS reports a growing divergence between taxes it should be collecting each year and the amount it actually receives. The current cost of federal tax avoidance has officially been pegged at a glaring $688 billion, though it's debatable how much of it is legal.

Increased IRS hiring was intended to stem that trend. But the Republican House majority in Washington opposes beefed-up enforcement, even if focused on the top 1% of earners. If a huge amount goes uncollected, and IRS authority is challenged, what inspires Long Islanders and other Americans to conscientiously pay Uncle Sam and the state?

Thefts from stores — from minor pilferage to outright ransacking — exposes weak enforcement, symbolized by pharmacies locking up toothpaste and other items for sale. This month, hundreds of workers at three Macy’s stores in the Seattle suburbs went on strike — with their leading demand not higher wages but a crackdown on thieves.

United Food & Commercial Workers Local 3000 said that the department store chain “is not doing enough to address shoplifting, violent shoppers, and other safety threats to workers and customers.” Some union members say it's pointless to call police given the unlikelihood of prosecution and a high threshold for felony charges. So the people in charge might have motive to do nothing about the wrongdoing before them. That in turn tells lawbreakers not to care who sees them steal or rob. Plainly, the pathology goes deeper than the cost of stolen goods.

Even medicine is affected by this lack of respect for the commonweal. Earlier this year, UNICEF reported from a survey that “public perception of the importance of vaccines for children declined during the COVID-19 pandemic in 52 out of 55 countries studied.”

For years, political scientist Robert Stoker of George Washington University has pointed out that parents sometimes refuse vaccines for kids because they know if most everyone else takes the jabs, their children will be protected by herd immunity.

“Herd immunity provides a social benefit,” he wrote in 2015. “Altruistic people are motivated in part by this social benefit when they get vaccinated. However, others see things differently … This makes it more attractive for people to ‘free ride’ on the vaccination decisions of others.” But as fewer kids are vaccinated, herd immunity will wane, leaving everyone at risk.

NO DRIVE FOR GOOD

Glaring examples of people refusing to defer to the public good appear before us on roads and highways — and not just the most fearsome miscreants who shift lanes at high speed in thick traffic. Nearly 60% of drivers in an anonymous national survey told AAA they engaged in risky behavior including speeding, driving aggressively, driving impaired, or distracted driving including texting behind the wheel. About 2% of drivers admitted committing all of these, as Newsday reported.

"The fact is they know what they’re doing," said Robert Sinclair, spokesman for AAA Northeast. 

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that despite a slight drop in overall roadway deaths, speeding fatalities reached a 14-year high in 2021 and account for nearly a third of all traffic deaths. And an analysis nearly a decade ago of two states that preceded New York in legalizing recreational cannabis, Colorado and Washington, showed a link between legalized pot and driving under its influence, as well as drivers testing positive for THC and cannabis-related traffic deaths.

Police enforcement measures against both drugged and hyperaggressive driving remain a work in progress.

The vexing scourges of fare-beating, shoplifting, tax dodging and dangerous driving all seem to present a thousand separate enforcement challenges amid heightened disorder in public spaces. Freedom is one thing; public safety and health another.

The wider question is how regard for the public good can grow among people whose thoughts run the other way. We're not talking here about idealistic political goals, but practical ways for all communities to get through the day.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.

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