Monday, April 20, 2009

An Interpretive Problem

This is autocross:

As you can see, it involves navigating a course set out using big (and small) orange traffic pylons. You do not want to hit one of those cones. If you do, and knock it over, you have 2 seconds added to your time, which pretty much means you lose. An event at our event yesterday sent me to the rule book to try and figure out just what it means to knock down a cone. The result says something about interpreting rules, whether they come from the SCCA or the US Code.

Yesterday's course had a tight right-hand hairpin in the top left corner of the parking lot you see in the video. In addition to having a clutch of cones in the middle to act as a pivot, it was defined with a wall of cones on the outside. Carry too much speed into the hairpin and you risked taking one of the wall cones with you when you left. Out of that corner was a short straight blast, followed by a tight right-left lane change.

One of our drivers, in a Mustang GT, overcooked that corner and plowed out of the hairpin. In the process, he slammed a pylon under the front of the Mustang. It's not all that unusual to take a pylon for a ride, although it's always good for some spectator amusement. But as the Mustang took off on the straight stretch, the pylon started working its way towards the back of the car. The Mustang turned right around the pylon marking the beginning of the lane change. Apparently, the motion of the car caused the lodged pylon to come bouncing out the back. As the Mustang sped away through the end of the course, the wayward pylon bounced backwards up the course. It hit the lane change pylon, knocking it over.

So, the question was raised - how many pylons did the Mustang hit and therefore how many seconds are added to his time? Just the one he took off the hairpin wall? What about the second one at the lane change? Nobody really knew (it wasn't his best run of the day, anyway, so in the end it didn't matter). My brother suggested someone needed to dig into the rule book to figure it out, so that's what I did.

It wasn't very enlightening. The current SCCA Solo rulebook (available for free download), although being hundreds of pages long, says surprisingly little about pylons and knocking them down. In a way, I suppose that makes sense. With the exception of the safety sections, none of the rulebook is binding on the local regions that run the vast majority of the autocrosses across the country. Federalism is alive and well in autocross. Still, the rules apply to Divisional and National events and are followed by lots of regions, so you'd think they'd say something.

Alas, this is all there is (emphasis mine):


7.9.1 Course Markers (Pylons)

A line two inches wide or two lines two inches apart will describe the location of each pylon. (If two lines are used the distance between the inner edge of the inner line to the outside edge of the outer line will be two inches plus or minus 1/4".) The inner edge or inner line will be used to describe the outer edge of the pylon base as accurately as possible and the outer edge or outer line will be the penalty limit. If the pylon is upset or totally displaced outside the penalty limit, two seconds will be assessed. At Regional events, local methods for locating pylons may be used.
OK, fine, but what does "upset" or "totally displaced" mean? Does it require intent of some sort? What's the driver's role in all this? There is no guidance.

As I said, local regions are free to adopt their own rules in this area. Maybe the SWVR Supplemental Regulations shed some light (emphasis mine):
Course Markers:

1. A penalty of 2 seconds will be assessed for each pylon displaced or knocked over.

2. Course defining pylons displaced will incur the above penalty. Directional or ‘pointer’ pylons do not incur the penalty; except those placed after the finish line.

3. If weather permits, the course will be lined on at least one side. Crossing the lines incurs no penalty.
Again, not very helpful. No definition of "displaced" or "knocked over." Knocked over by what, or by whom, exactly?

What we're left with from a review of the applicable rules is that only one condition is needed to incur a penalty: an upset or totally displaced pylon. If it gets knocked over, add two seconds.

For a literalist, that's the end of the analysis. There are no exceptions to the rules as written. It doesn't distinguish between slamming a pylon while trying to cut a corner and a barely measurable earthquake shaking a pylon to the ground. That's the rule. If the rule makers want to change it, they're free to do so.

But that can't be right, can it? I mean, a driver should only get penalized for something that's his fault, right? It only seems fair. A couple of years ago, during our event at the Mid-Ohio Valley Regional Airport outside of Parkersburg, the wind was so fierce that pylons were literally being blown over. In fact, we had to stop the event because of that problem. Nobody seriously suggested that whichever poor schmuck was on course at the time the winds whipped up should be penalized for their ill timing.

So what? Should fairness even enter into the discussion? After all, either the SCCA or SWVR could rewrite the rules to take such situations into account. Maybe change it to a pylon "upset or displaced by the action of the driver." But do we need to do that? Or should whoever makes the decision be able to apply some basic fairness and common sense in reaching a decision? The rules don't directly address it, after all, and a mechanistic application of what's written in the book would produce a harsh result.

Many times, that's the basic underlying issue when it comes to differing judicial values. It's hard sometimes for layfolk to grasp how the Ninth Circuit and the Fourth Circuit can both interpret the same rule book - the US Code and Constitution - and come up with different results. They both read the same words, after all, so how can the Ninth come out more pro-defendant and the Fourth more pro-prosecution?

It's not because the Ninth is composed of bleeding heart lovers of criminals or the Fourth is stocked with dogmatic "hanging" judges. That's too simplistic. I think it comes down to which set of judges worries more about tempering harsh results with a sense of fairness. Lest you think that fairness has no place in courts, keep in mind that the US court system merged the olde Enlglish concepts of law courts and equity courts in one body. Equity courts were all about broader notions of fairness.

Both approaches have their value. Carving out case by case exceptions to the rules to avoid unfair results can potentially lead to rules that exist on paper only and the exceptions swallow the rule. Clinging hard to the plain language in the rules can lead to unfair results in individual cases, even those where the rule writers might have found the result unfair. One leaves the decision with the court, which will see the detailed factual scenario of every case up close and personal. The other leaves the decision with the rule makers - legislators or, in our case, the SCCA/SWVR - who can act with broader mandates. Where you think that decision making authority should rest says a lot about your political philosophy, I think.

Getting back to the Mustang - should he have gotten an additional 2 second penalty for the lane change pylon getting whacked by the wayward pylon spit out the back of his car? Probably, under either approach. The rules clearly call for a penalty for every pylon "upset" and the second one certain was that. But even trying to carve out an exception to the rules, the Mustang loses. It did pick up the first pylon, which became the missile that careened into the second one. Had he not picked up the first one, there would be no issue.

So, in this case, both approaches produce the same result. Justice, it appears, was done, even if we didn't quite know why. But it doesn't always work out that way.

1 comment:

Tim Maddox said...

I am taking a different approach. Here’s my logic.

The rules state a penalty “If the pylon is upset or totally displaced…” There is nothing in the rule book that says HOW it is displaced. So you can take two approaches to interpret the “how” part of a cone penalty.

One, a literal interpretation that anytime a cone moves while a car is on course it is a penalty. But, as you noted with the high winds at the Parkersburg event, this could include acts of God (or acts of a mad course worker who kicks a cone because he doesn’t like a driver on course), which is unfair and not in the intended spirit of the rules.

The second way is to interpret the intent or spirit in which the rule was written, and then apply that intention to the rule. I personally believe the intent of the rule was to apply a cone penalty only when it is moved by the car on course, or the car/driver unit. Did a nearsighted eagle take a swipe at the cone? Not a penalty. Did a course worker kick the cone? Not a penalty. Did the driver stop the car and kick the cone? Ahhh…I say penalty; he is an integral part of the car. Did the side view mirror fly off and hit the cone. I would again say penalty, it’s a part of the car. You have to keep it under control, just like the driver’s temper.

Based on my “intent and spirit” of the rule interpretation, here is where is gets tricky. Let’s remind ourselves of the question:
If the car picks up a cone (and a first penalty), and spits the cone out at another cone, is that a second penalty?
If you believe the first cone has become an integral part of the car/driver unit, due to the fault of the driver, then it is like that defective side view mirror and the cone should be held responsible - a second time - for jumping on his twin orange brother.
However, if you believe the second cone is not an integral part of the car, but an unintended and possibly unknown ride-along - for which a penalty has already been assessed - then can then penalized cone create “double jeopardy” and continue to cause more penalties?

After all that analysis, I don’t have the answer either. You decide. I do know that according to Murphy’s Law, if you vote the cone can’t cause a second penalty, you will never again drag a cone under your car. If you vote that a cone can cause subsequent penalties, on your next run you will snag a cone cross-ways on the corner of your bumper and it will proceed to knock down every other cone on the course in vengeful domino fashion.