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Beat the System

I think about systems ALL the time. It’s like my brain is hard-wired to see and evaluate the rules and routines people follow every single day.

  • The line at the grocery store...

  • The Starbucks mobile ordering platform...

  • The way we merge onto a busy interstate...


A few days ago I was pulled over on my way to pick up my son from school. As I made my way to a side street, I was wracking my brain, trying to figure out why the officer thought I was worth his time.


I wasn’t speeding.

My lights were on in the rain.

I was wearing my seatbelt.

I wasn’t even glancing at my phone.


Well, it turned out that the infraction wasn't a problem with my driving. It was a problem with my vehicle. My front license plate has fallen off repeatedly (Honda evidently doesn’t know how far apart to put license plate screws, so they don’t line up. Anyway....) The plate was laying on the front dash facing the windshield instead of on my front bumper, where it belonged.


Now, to a rule follower like me, this is an issue. In the 25 years I’ve had a driver’s license, I've never had a ticket, and I wasn't about to ruin my perfect record over a license plate.


Sitting on the side of the road, knowing my son is now standing in the rain waiting for me a few blocks away, my thought process started to run in a different direction...


“Gosh, I hope he doesn’t ticket me for this.”

“Wait, why is he wasting time on this? Isn’t there real crime happening somewhere?”

“This is kind of a stupid rule. Why do we need a license plate on the front AND back of our cars anyway?”

“What dummy created this rule, and WHAT WAS HE THINKING?”


Someone, somewhere, at some time determined that a front license plate is SO important that it should be legally required.


Whether they thought it was so important that a mother in a minivan on her way to pick up a child from school in the middle of the day should be pulled over taking tax dollars and the hard work of a police officer...well, that’s doubtful.


We rarely think of all of the ramifications of lines we draw in the sand. We draw them, because we’ve been hurt, something bad has happened, or we think something bad COULD happen without the line being there.


We draw the line, we publish the policy, we legalize the law, because we think it will help everyone involved. So a mom is late picking up her cold and wet son in suburban Texas, because an officer didn’t see a front plate when she passed by (he ran the back one just fine.)


Am I mad at the police officer? Heck no. He was doing his job.

Am I mad at the guy who wrote the law? Nah. I’m sure there was some good reason for putting that rule into effect, but I sure wish someone thought through these things more carefully.


[Side rant: The other side of the issue is that we don’t mind the lines being drawn in inconsiderate ways, because it makes us feel safe. We’re willing to sacrifice the law-abiding moms and cold and wet kids for the sake of our sense of safety. It’s why we let TSA see us naked in scanners and allow the government to see every click on our computers. It helps us believe that all the red tape will deter the “bad” people enough to make the cost to everybody else worth it.]


Systems matter. They run the world, and little tweaks in a big cog have huge effects.


Be careful where you put red tape.

Think through where you put stop signs.

If they don’t serve everyone, they may not serve you

(at least not like you think they do.)

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