Is Cincinnati's war on big rims racial profiling?

Hello viewers! In today’s episode of “Counterproductive Nanny-State Foolishness”, we see Cincinnati police officials taking to the streets to relieve citizens — including the handicapped – of their sole source of transportation. The reason? The offending drivers had the temerity to drive cars…with large tire rims.

Yes, you read that correctly. Rims may be an offense against good taste (and for this I offer pre-emptive apologies to the creators of Pimp My Ride), but nothing suggests they are a substantial public safety hazard. Apparently the authorities in Cincinnati think differently, as they’ve recently began impounding vehicles that display the shiny, often over-sized adornments. As their authority, city police cite an obscure Cincinnati municipal code empowering them confiscate “unsafe” vehicles.

Certain infractions are called “victimless crimes”, but Cincinnati’s vigilance against big rims certainly qualifies as a “crimeless crime”, if such a thing exits. The law is a maddening study in administrative ambiguity and bureaucratic overreach. How exactly does the average citizen characterize an “unsafe” vehicle, and can it honestly be argued that an arthritic man using a cane is “knowingly” endangering the life of a fellow motorist?

A cursory search of the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) database turns up little more than passing mentions to how rims — in addition with other factors — might pose a rollover risk to drivers. While large tires and rims are sometimes cited as a reason for a less optimal driving experience, auto-safety advocates don’t cite them as a primary safety risk.

So what exactly is the true motive behind this blitz? The city itself, seemingly embarrassed by the public relations fiasco and incapable of defending the nonsensical, hasn’t offered much in the way of an explanation. But the real answers might be found in the city’s recent fiscal woes. Cincinnati’s red ink-drenched and gimmick-riddled budget, which last year projected the city would see a 2011 structural deficit exceeding $50 million in a $333 million budget.

The mayor has been scrambling to avoid laying-off hundreds of municipal workers, recently telling local media that it was “impossible” to compensate for a budget shortfall through spending cuts alone. Perish the thought. No, to solve its financial problems the city has apparently resorted to an easy, time-honored tradition: soaking struggling citizens for frivolous fees in what is tantamount to a stealth tax. Fining motorists for driving cars with over-sized rims might create a bit of grousing, but that seems less a concern to Cinci’s more important goal of finding new sources of revenue in an economy still recovering from the ravages of a deep recession.

With headlines like these, it’s little wonder why citizens’ trust in government institutions is so abysmal. Cincinnati’s war against rims shows exactly why in crime-ridden urban areas, cooperation with police is so hard to come by. Cincinnati’s law is a portrait of government run amok, where low-level bureaucrats delve into marginal quality-of-life issues that lie far beyond the core competencies of low-level municipal workers.

The city’s move to rein in rims recalls the early days of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s tenure, when police issued a blizzard of summonses for the most minor of infractions (in the interest of full disclosure, I was ticketed two years ago for — wait for it — walking through subway cars while the train was in motion). As one intrepid blogger points out, Cincinnati’s actions also bear a whiff of racial profiling, given the close association of tricked-out cars with hip-hop. It’s also more than that: it’s nanny-state intervention at its worst. In a world where authorities are waging wars against nutritionally-questionable school lunches, cigarette-smoking, sugar and other issues of individual choice, it seems as if there’s no area the tendrils of the governmental administrative complex won’t force itself into.

The eminently quotable Ayn Rand said it best: “Do not ever say that the desire to ‘do good’ by force is a good motive. Neither power-lust nor stupidity are good motives.” Cincinnati standing sentry against the forces of blinged-out car accessories certainly falls into both the latter categories. Rand’s classic book Atlas Shrugged, a tome that describes what happens when the government is allowed to run riot with good intentions, hits the big screen this Friday for the first time, and it’s arrival is particularly timely.

State, local and federal authorities are finding increasingly novel and stealthy ways to inconvenience people in an effort to save them from themselves. But as the unintended consequences become more obvious, citizens are pushing back as frustrations mount. You would think Cincinnati’s government would have bigger fish to fry elsewhere. If not, perhaps they should find some.