Dusk to dawn parking restrictions: why so hard to enforce?

I’ve seen some creative attempts to manage and control on-street parking, most of which don’t seem to work as intended, precisely because they’re creative.  Regulating how people use the margins in a public right-of-way doesn’t really leave much room for creativity, because, when it comes to conveying that law to the lowest common denominator, creativity usually only elicits confusion.  And I think that’s precisely what happened here, at a fairly nondescript commercial cluster based right off an interstate exit ramp. No parking from dusk to dawn.

dusk to dawn parking restrictions at Exit 77A along I-95 in Maryland

Seems simple enough.  The syntax of the command isn’t really ambiguous.  The problem, of course, is the time frames.  What constitutes “dusk” and “dawn”?   It obviously changes throughout the year, which isn’t convincing, because, aside from lack of daylight, no other persuasive reason justifies prohibiting vehicles from parking here at 6:00pm in January while permitting it during that same time in July.  Perhaps daylight visibility is enough of an argument.  But is it?

Subjective interpretation also poses a problem; the definition for “dusk to dawn” varies from one person to the next.  I personally thought of twilight as that brief period right before the last bit of daylight fades, a time later than dusk, which can begin as soon as the sun begins to sink below the horizon and can linger for quite some time—maybe even an hour or two.  (Even longer in the latitudes closer to the two poles.)  I have no doubt that, if one were to ask ten random people their definition of dusk, no two of the ten responses would be the exact same, even if most (or all) share common features.  In the eyes of enforcing a law, a general common understanding of dusk to dawn isn’t good enough.  For example, are the two words synonymous with “sunrise” and “sunset”?

Well, no. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) maintains definitions that at least allow for an authoritative, fixed source, which it would behoove lawmakers to observe.  From NIST’s determination, an evening begins with sunset, when the last of the sun creeps below the horizon.  It ends with dusk (when the sun is 6° below the horizon line), with twilight comprising the intervening period.  And daybreak begins with dawn (6° below the horizon once again), ends with sunrise (when the first part of the sun becomes visible); the period between this bookends is once again twilight.  But how many people know this?  And how fair is it for law enforcement to flag people for violating what might be a good-faith effort to remove their vehicles in time?

Too many paragraphs ending in questions!  The bigger consideration, though, is probably less astronomical or meteorological and more sociological.  The road with these parking restrictions rests within a vehicle-friendly commercial node right off of one of the busy interstate highways in the US, at Exit 77A on Interstate 95, several miles northeast of Baltimore but still firmly within the metro.  The area is vaguely called “Edgewood”, but its identity isn’t terribly powerful besides the interstate exit, the nearest MARC Train regional rail stop, a smattering of businesses, and a military installation (Aberdeen Proving Ground – Edgewood Area).  Edgewood lacks a visible town center; neighboring communities of Bel Air and Aberdeen have a much stronger identity.

Here at exit 77A, motorists encounter the predictable array of services in an exurban area: hotels, gas stations, restaurants (many chains, many drive-thrus), and, most importantly for the purposes of this article, businesses with a heavy dependence on warehousing and logistics, which capitalize on the quick and easy access to I-95 through a busy cloverleaf interchange.  Emmorton Park Road, to which the dusk to dawn restrictions apply, is half of a minor loop just off the highway (Maryland State Road 24), which provides access to a few restaurants, a Holiday Inn, Hampton Inn, Red Roof Inn, and that smattering of light industrial businesses that no doubt depend on I-95 for both distribution and to lure customers who might travel large distances to seek their services.  Here’s what the road looks like in daylight.  It’s obviously broad enough to support on-street parking, and, aside from the hotels, most of these businesses aren’t open at night, during what might constitute a “third shift” for higher intensity industrial and warehousing.  It’s pretty quiet from dusk to dawn.  Both Edgewood and Exit 77A comprise an nondescript, unremarkable area with a medium level of development nearby.  They aren’t as busy as an exit ramp leading to a mall or office park, but much more active than the rural exits about 20 miles further north on I-95, which are likely to have little more than gas station or two.  So why the dusk to dawn restrictions?  

A none-too-surprising answer is that truck stops are a major node for human trafficking and sex trafficking in particular.  Far more popular than government run rest stops because of the low likelihood of law enforcement, truck stops offer a big clientele base in an otherwise remote or obscure location—two features that make it much more difficult for the kidnapped individual to escape the situation.  Activist organizations such as Truckers Against Trafficking seek to mobilize practitioners in the logistics industry to monitor and report suspicious activity, thereby doing their part to alleviate the reputation truck stops have acquired for lascivious behavior.   TAT Certification trains participating truckers and trucking companies so that they have both the knowledge and sworn duty to report incidents.

Exit 77A isn’t a truck stop, and its dusk to dawn restrictions only reinforce this.  Nor is it a publicly owned rest stop.  But it shares features of both: it clearly hosts a variety of businesses that dependent on logistics and trucking, and, with the cluster of hotels and restaurants within walking distance, it offers many—or even more—of the amenities one typically expects at rest stops.  With land ownership and tenure spread across a variety of businesses, this exit in Edgewood is rife with conditions that promote diffusion of responsibility: unlike more rural interstate exits, it offers a variety of uses in approximately the same land area needed for a truck stop, but no specific company caters primarily or exclusively to truckers.  So many entities own small fragments of land that it reduces the odds that one business will feel impelled to notify another if business #1 witnesses a crime taking place on business #2’s property.  (It doesn’t help that the owners of these properties are likely far removed from the operations here at Edgewood.)  If it weren’t for the high density of people lurking around the area in a given night, it might be ground zero for kidnapping individuals to exploit within a trafficking ring. Or it might be ground zero because so many people are around with no stake in the matter; crime takes place while hidden in plain view.  All the better that Harford County Sheriff, which enforces law in unincorporated Edgewood, restricts overnight parking along this road…from dusk to dawn.

But does the sheriff restrict parking?  My brief visit at around 9:30pm in January (clearly well after dusk) doesn’t suggest much evidence of enforcement.

no enforcement of dusk to dawn parking restrictions

It was amazing the variety of vehicles I found parked here from dusk to dawn: tractor trailers, unhitched semis, RVs, dealership vehicles.  Since the readers’ eyebrows might raise wondering what I was doing around here, I’ll confess I was staying at one of the Exit 77A hotels for work at a nearby Aberdeen Proving Ground.  After a long day, I wanted to get a little exercise on a comfortable winter night, so I walked the full length of the loop consisting of Emmorton Park Road on the north side and Columbia Park Road on the south, as seen in the map below.

I counted at least a dozen vehicles violating the dusk to dawn restriction.  Much to my momentary alarm, I even saw a young man lying bundled up in the grass near one of the logistics-oriented businesses, awake but seemingly preparing to sleep.  Though I didn’t feel particularly unsafe, it is likely that anyone overseeing illicit activity would make an effort to be as clandestine as possible.  And the large presence of people ignoring the restrictive signage suggests that Exit 77a has the reputation of going unenforced—of being a quasi-lawless area, tolerating motorists who pull off the road to rest without having to pay for a hotel, truck stop, or RV park.

In short, the dusk to dawn signage doesn’t work—potentially due exclusively to a lack of enforcement, but also potentially due to the underlying ambiguity that comes with such an offhand reference to time.  Most urban parking restrictions do list fixed times (e.g., “NO PARKING FROM 10PM to 5PM”) which would at least offer clarity for those worried about breaking the law.  With a halfhearted attempt at crafting a nighttime restriction the obvious response from the public is equally lackadaisical.  And the halfhearted language in this restriction may hint that, even amidst the warning signs, Exit 77A really isn’t a criminal hotbed. It it were, the law enforcement entities would have crafted time restrictions that are clearer. bOne can only hope that the majority of dusk to dawn activity at Exit 77A is weary travelers seeking a cheap spot to pull over, hunker down in their vehicle, and saw some logs.

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6 thoughts on “Dusk to dawn parking restrictions: why so hard to enforce?

  1. Richard Saut

    Eric, Dusk & dawn are defined by your latitude and season of the year. Maybe you could get the signs changed to nautical twilight to dawn. Here’s the definitions by Time & Date, possibly astronomically defined. https://www.timeanddate.com/astronomy/dusk.html

    These actual time change daily as we approach either the summer or winter solsitice.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks. Good to hear from you, Richard. Sounds like another strong source. I used National Institute of Standards and Testing (NIST), primarily because it’s government-oriented and would therefore be a good resource for a jurisdiction that’s seeking an authoritative source upon which to base a definition of “dusk”. Another feature of NIST (entirely coincidental) is that its HQ is not that far away from the area in Maryland described and quite close to the same latitude.

      But you also still raised the point that makes a vague law like this difficult to enforce: the regulatory period changes a little bit every day.

      Reply
      1. Richard Saut

        Eric, I thought about this a bit more. In the presence of artificial light, true dusk or dawn timing may be tough for someone to discern. The local definition may simply be when the street lights turn on/off. Effetively dusk to dawn is determined by the person that calibrated the photocell on top the streetlight.

        Hope you are doing great.

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirt Post author

          Yeah, I’ve given this more thought too–especially since I really noticed when the streetlights come on these days. And, at least in the District, it’s not entirely based on a set notion of meteorological sunrise and sunset. It’s whenever it starts getting visibly dark. If it’s a cloudy or stormy evening in April when the normal time for sunset is 7:27 pm, the lights might come on as early as 6:40 if the cloud cover results in the effect of dusk at that point in time. There’s probably a threshold measured in lumens or candelas, and someone in DPW controls the switch. In many municipalities around here, violent thunderstorms in the summer can leave the sky almost as dark as sunset at 2pm–depending on the DPW’s judgment (potentially prompted by National Weather Service), they’ll switch the streetlights on.

          Reply
  2. Chris B

    In a similar vein, when I got my first driver’s license in PA, I recall that the headlight law was something like 30 minutes after sunset to 30 minutes before sunrise…effectively dusk to dawn. But I think the code actually cited the National Weather Service as the authoritative source for the time on a particular day. That was long, long ago and Eric may have more recent experience getting licensed in PA…

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Wish I could back you up on this, but I just don’t know. I had to do basically nothing to renew my license when I moved to PA several years ago. I’m going to assert–with absolutely no meteorological knowledge–that the period of twilight varies greatly depending on latitude, with latitudes closer to the poles having the longest. I base this entirely on my limited experience in (relatively) high latitude areas like Alaska and Iceland, which I’ve primarily visited during transitional periods (close to vernal/autumnal equinox) and noticed how inordinately long the time felt between first sunset and actual dusk. Rather than 30-60 minutes like it might be around the 40th parallel north, it seemed like it took the sun forever to set: 2-3 hours.

      If I ever get to experience a true Midsommar, it would probably be even longer, and much the same during the winter solstice but with the emphasis on night, followed by a lengthy twilight leading to a very brief day.

      NWS is a pretty likely resource–probably more than NIST.

      Reply

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