In Praise of Traffic Tickets

Is more or less the theme of my latest column at Slate.

Coincidentally, reader Lucas had this morning sent me a horrifying story from the Atlanta Journal Constitution about a young Nepalese girl, having just arrived in the U.S., who was struck by an SUV driver who illegally passed a MARTA bus.

One particular passage stood out:

A Clarkston police officer parked on the shoulder of Ponce de Leon Avenue witnessed the accident, Scipio said. The officer had just written six tickets to other drivers for passing on a double line and he was about to go after Armwood when Sukmaya was hit.

Scipio said Armwood saw the patrolman on the side of the road and “he still passed another vehicle.”

I haven’t seen the link between enforcement and public health made quite so painfully clear and close as this example. But it raises an obvious, if often overlooked point: A majority of crashes are not only “human factors” related, but involve some traffic violation, whether speed, failing to signal, etc. — and violations are, as has been discussed in the literature (here for example), clearly different (and clearly more dangerous) than errors (though the press tends to lump both under the rubric of “accidents”). The issue here is not simply ticketing drivers (though I’m all for doing far more of that, and with more meaningful penalties), but taking more strenuous measures against those who seem to have a knack for racking them up (and often, inevitably it can seem, going on to do greater damage).

This entry was posted on Friday, August 28th, 2009 at 1:30 pm and is filed under Traffic safety. 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.

4 Responses to “In Praise of Traffic Tickets”

  1. Brian Ogilvie Says:

    Horrifying story. I’ve just been traveling around Norway, where the posted speed limits are low: 50 kmh/30mph in most built-up areas, 30 kph/18 mph in pedestrian-priority zones, 80 kph/50 mph outside of built-up areas, and a whopping 90 kph/56 mph on 4-lane, limited access highways. The limits are strictly enforced. Cars must drive with headlights on at all times (given the low clouds, fog, and short days for much of the year, I can see why this rule is in effect). And the legal maximum blood alcohol content is 0.02 percent, also strictly enforced–in fact, bartenders will often refuse to serve someone who mentions that he or she will be driving afterwards.

    In short, Norwegians seem to accept that to have safe roads, people have to drive more slowly than Americans do and that they need to pay more attention. The roads are definitely less forgiving than in most of the US–narrow, little or no shoulder, often no center line, and in some places so narrow that if two cars meet, one must back up to the closest passing area. I think that probably helps safety, because drivers know when rounding that blind curve that they may meet someone.

  2. John Says:

    Tom, quote–

    “The issue here is not simply ticketing drivers (though I’m all for doing far more of that, and with more meaningful penalties), but taking more strenuous measures against those who seem to have a knack for racking them up (and often, inevitably it can seem, going on to do greater damage).”

    Let us tell on each other. See my blog entry, “an addition to making driving safer.”

  3. James Says:

    The police should impound the driver’s car after three serious moving violations like running a red light or stop sign, driving while yakking on a cell phone (oops not an offense yet in some states), or tailgating. After the vehicle is impounded, the driver would have to wait three days before he/she could pick up their vehicle from towing.

    If the offense involves the injury or loss of life due to drunkenness or negligence (yakking on a cell phone counts), then the car should be impounded and all driving privileges revoked for at least one year. If the driver is illegally here, then ship them out of the country. Make the offense hurt.

  4. Jim Pfeiffer Says:

    You noted in your Slate article, over a decade 89 officers killed and 600,000 assaulted during traffic
    stops. It’s an interesting ratio and leads me to point out that a common police tactic (hopefully less
    common today?) has been to assault a suspect and then charge them with assault afterwards, presumably
    to justify any injury to the suspect. And while someone is only supposed to be pulled over for “due cause”
    (except in the case of roadblocks where, for example, every tenth person is stopped) it is clearly shown in
    racial profiling studies that some officers use prejudiced or even invented reasons for initiating a stop. This in no way rebuts your interesting comments about the value of police stops in general. But it does suggest
    that they pose an unreasonable (and unjust) burden on minority communities. Again, the problem is not
    with the stops per se but with ensuring uniform standards which do not infringe upon the rights or
    prerogatives of law-abiding persons.

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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.

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