CONTACTTRAFFICABOUT TOM VANDERBILTOTHER WRITING CONTACT ABOUT THE BOOK

The Trouble with Traffic School

Photo: JAC/WENN

Unlike Nicole Richie, I’ve never been to traffic school, that strange institution, found particularly in California, where errant drivers go as penance for DUIs (e.g., Richie) and other offenses and, rather bizarrely, to get points and convictions taken off your license (if only there was a “burglary school” for thieves who wanted to remove some blemishes from their criminal record). I don’t know if they’re anything like this skit, but the sense I’ve always gotten from visiting the websites (for “Improv Traffic School” or “Singles Traffic School”) and reading some of the articles , is that they’re light on actual education and filled with bored people merely trying to lower their insurance rates.

The question is: Are people really learning anything in these schools? Are they capable of learning something? In their excellent book Mistakes Were Made, psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson tell an interesting story about a traffic school: “As participants went around the room, reporting the violations that had brought them there, a miraculous coincidence occurred: Not one of them was responsible for breaking the law. They all had justifications for why they were speeding, had ignored a stop sign, ran a red light, or made an illegal U-turn.” People seemed unable to overcome the “cognitive dissonance” between their image of themselves as a good driver and the fact they had done something stupid or illegal.

A new study (via IIHS) by Michael Gebers of the California DMV, titled “A traffic safety evaluation of California’s traffic violator school citation dismissal policy,” updating earlier research, shows that traffic schools seem to have an unintended consequence: They raise a driver’s crash risk.

As IIHS notes, “despite their lower initial crash risk, traffic school drivers had a crash rate about 5 percent higher than that of convicted drivers during the year following the citation.” There are other problems: The policy of removing points and convictions from a driver’s record “reduces the ability to predict, or calibrate, the future accident expectancies” of those drivers by masking their true driving record. By lowering those drivers’ insurance rates, some drivers without convictions may actually end up paying more, subsidizing the would-be Nicole Richies of the world (some 1.2 million drivers’ citations are dismissed this way every year). Strangely, the DMV itself has called for the schools to be “abolished” or greatly restricted (and if “traffic schools” were to exist, shouldn’t the DMV itself be running them?)

The study reminded me of another, in The Lancet, by Donald Redelmeier, Robert Tibsharani, and Leonard Evans, which found that receiving a conviction for a traffic offense was something of a life-saver: “The risk of a fatal crash in the month after a conviction was about 35% lower than in a comparable month with no conviction for the same driver.” (the effect dropped after that).

Convictions, after all, are a form of feedback, however inexact, pointing out a driver’s mistakes, inducing caution. How does knowing these can be rinsed off of one’s record do anyone any good? I’d like to hear from any pro-traffic school people, or indeed stories from any traffic school attendees.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, July 24th, 2008 at 11:52 am and is filed under Drivers, Traffic Culture, Traffic Psychology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

3 Responses to “The Trouble with Traffic School”

  1. California Stopper Says:

    I did it… I rolled through the stop sign.

    I did learn a lesson. Now I know know where to look for the sneakily parked motorcycle cop each time I roll through that stop sign.

  2. California Stopper Says:

    Oh, and that Goofy “Mr. Walker vs. Mr. Wheeler” video is great!

    (But they need to update their terrible circa-1987 VHS copy.)

  3. Susan Ciccantelli Says:

    yes. can we eliminate the word “accident” from the news? we could start with traffic reporters.

    I call it the “A-word,” and my students (drivers’ ed!) are not allowed to say it. Crash, collision, wreck are all acceptable. Think about the difference between “I got into an accident” and “I crashed the car.” Accident implies/infers that no one was at fault and it could not have been prevented. It’s called neuro-linguistic programming…if you think of it and call it an accident you probably won’t be focussed on preventing it.

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

Please send tips, news, research papers, links, photos (bad road signs, outrageous bumper stickers, spectacularly awful acts of driving or parking or anything traffic-related), or ideas for my Slate.com Transport column to me at: info@howwedrive.com.

For publicity inquiries, please contact Kate Runde at Vintage: krunde@randomhouse.com.

For editorial inquiries, please contact Zoe Pagnamenta at The Zoe Pagnamenta Agency: zoe@zpagency.com.

For speaking engagement inquiries, please contact
Kim Thornton at the Random House Speakers Bureau: rhspeakers@randomhouse.com.

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For UK publicity enquiries please contact Rosie Glaisher at Penguin.

Upcoming Talks

April 9, 2008.
California Office of Traffic Safety Summit
San Francisco, CA.

May 19, 2009
University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies
Bloomington, MN

June 23, 2009
Driving Assessment 2009
Big Sky, Montana

June 26, 2009
PRI World Congress
Rotterdam, The Netherlands

June 27, 2009
Day of Architecture
Utrecht, The Netherlands

July 13, 2009
Association of Transportation Safety Information Professionals (ATSIP)
Phoenix, AZ.

August 12-14
Texas Department of Transportation “Save a Life Summit”
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September 2, 2009
Governors Highway Safety Association Annual Meeting
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September 11, 2009
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Raymond, Ohio

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October 21, 2009
California State University-San Bernardino, Leonard Transportation Center
San Bernardino, CA

November 5
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Yale University
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University of Delaware
Delaware Center for Transportation

April 5-7
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Salt Lake City
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April 19
International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (Organization Management Workshop)
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Monday, April 26
Edmonton Traffic Safety Conference
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Monday, June 7
Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals
Niagara Falls, Ontario

Wednesday, July 6
Fondo de Prevención Vial
Bogotá, Colombia

Tuesday, August 31
Royal Automobile Club
Perth, Australia

Wednesday, September 1
Australasian Road Safety Conference
Canberra, Australia

Wednesday, September 22

Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s
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Wisconsin Dells, WI

Wednesday, October 20
Rutgers University
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Piscataway, NJ

Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Ontario Injury Prevention Resource Centre
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Monday, May 2
Idaho Public Driver Education Conference
Boise, Idaho

Tuesday, June 2, 2011
California Association of Cities
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Sunday, August 21, 2011
American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators
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Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Attitudes: Iniciativa Social de Audi
Madrid, Spain

April 16, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Gardens Theatre, QUT
Brisbane, Australia

April 17, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Centennial Plaza, Sydney
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April 19, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Melbourne Town Hall
Melbourne, Australia

January 30, 2013
University of Minnesota City Engineers Association Meeting
Minneapolis, MN

January 31, 2013
Metropolis and Mobile Life
School of Architecture, University of Toronto

February 22, 2013
ISL Engineering
Edmonton, Canada

March 1, 2013
Australian Road Summit
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May 8, 2013
New York State Association of
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Rochester, NY

August 18, 2013
BoingBoing.com “Ingenuity” Conference
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September 26, 2013
TransComm 2013
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of State Highway and Transportation
Officials’ Subcommittee on Transportation
Communications.
Grand Rapids MI

 

 

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