2 Easy to Get, 2 Hard to Lose

I never really had a mantra for the Traffic book, the way Michael Pollan does: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

I tried to think: Drive safer, not so much, mostly walk (ok, that’s for New Yorkers). But you get the picture.

I noticed a few people responded to an offhand comment I made in the Streetfilms interview: “It’s too easy to get a license in this country, too hard to lose one.”

By this I mean our driver’s education and licensing system is in need of a number of reforms — we treat driving like a right, as in voting — and the newspapers (and courts) are filled with recidivist drivers. Read a random article about a fatal crash, and I’ll be you, that by about the sixth or seventh paragraph, you’ll begin to see examples of previous incidents or some underlying pattern of behavior that seriously undermines the “accidental” nature of any crash (e.g., the driver in the Taconic minivan crash). And yes, I am aware that many people with suspended licenses simply drive without a license, and yes, we need to look in many cases at the behavioral questions, yadda, yadda, yadda, but why we should continue to legally pander to people with a reckless disregard for human life is beyond me.

I was thinking of this again while watching, in Edmonton, a poignant talk by Melissa Wandall, whose husband was killed by a (repeat) red-light runner (the red-light law she’s worked for has just cleared the Florida senate; and despite what you often hear from the fringes of the right, most people, when polled, actually support such devices, when used judiciously). The offending driver already had 10 points on her license, a number of which kept getting bumped down by visits to traffic schools (the efficacy of which has been seriously called into question by several studies). Shockingly, she’s back on the road today.

Let’s go back to John Stuart Mill: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

It’s that ‘civilized’ bit I sometimes wonder about these days.

This entry was posted on Thursday, April 29th, 2010 at 7:56 am and is filed under Etc., Traffic Engineering, 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.

19 Responses to “2 Easy to Get, 2 Hard to Lose”

  1. David Veatch Says:

    From the article: “If Crist signs the bill, a driver ignoring a red light who is caught on camera will be fined $158, but will not have points added to his driver’s record. Insurance companies will not be allowed to increase premiums for violations.”

    I don’t get it. Explain to me why points would not be added, and why insurance companies would not be allowed to increase premiums. What are points used for, if not for something like this? If such reckless disregard for the safety of others is not cause for increased premiums that would help support the costs their recklessness actions incured, then clearly my understanding of the purpose of insurance premiums is flawed.

    To limit this legislation to a simple fine appears to rip all the useful teeth out of this law…

  2. Michael Prager Says:

    The hard part about a mantra for your book is that the real conclusion of you and many reasonable people reading all the evidence you put together is that we should drive less but asking people to drive less is to some like asking you not to breathe. BTW, the other day I avoided driving on the highway during a bit of fog based on what I read in your book.

    I agree about your comments about getting a license in this country. Just like there is talk lately about getting bad teachers out of the classrooms, we need to get the bad drivers off the roads. 40,000 people killed each year in this country is unacceptable. Is there any evidence that other countries that have stricter systems for getting and keeping a license have lower accident rates?

  3. Will Hanley Says:

    I think that your mantra is nice, but it only addresses one effect of the deeper phenomenon you hint at in your post: “we treat driving like a right, as in voting.” Unlike voting, it is a right exercised by almost everyone, and in many ways we live in a society in which driving = enfranchisement. (Ride public transportation in most small and medium sized cities and you quickly notice that the ridership consists largely of the socially and economically disenfranchised.)

    Despite weak laws, the road is also filled with drivers without licenses. This fact sheds further light on the kernel of truth behind your mantra: social, economic, and planning conditions create the perception that life without driving unacceptable; like grain thieves in a famine, people will break the law to “survive.” Lax license requirements are a symptom, not a cause.

  4. Tom Vanderbilt Says:

    These are good comments; in some ways “the impaired driving” problem is as much a “driving problem” as an “alcohol problem” — it’s why more DUI drivers die per mile in Montana. They do more driving, at higher speeds (and it takes longer for help to arrive).

    And I personally agree the law should be stronger — I believe a whole host of traffic laws should be made stronger.

    Though even more important than how punitive a law is is getting people to agree that its adoption and enforcement is socially desirable. I’m somehow reminded of a comment made by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in a piece in the current New Yorker:

    “I suppose it’s by using as best I can the existing consultative mechanisms to create a climate—and I think that’s often the best, to create a climate,” he told me. “There’s a phrase which has struck me very much: that you can actually ruin a good cause by pushing it at the wrong moment and not allowing the process of discernment and consent to go on, and that’s part of my view.”

  5. SteveL Says:

    -Insurance companies should be allowed to assess risk any way they choose: if it is from data on red-light running, well, that should be taken into account. In the UK they apparently penalise RLJ-camera tickets more than speeding ones, as it is considered more hazardous.

    -One of the odd things about the US is even when you get a license suspended, you often are still allowed to drive to work (this may be an Oregon-only feature), its as is driving is viewed as so necessary that they cannot conceive of removing the right.

    -Having had my license removed for 12 months for medical reasons (a seizure), I now get a free bus permit to take the edge of things. Perhaps part of the penalty for having a license removed is a fine which is then used to buy a year’s bus permit, so giving you an alternative to driving which you have already invested in, so may as well use/

  6. Theophylact Says:

    David Veatch: The problem with points is that the red-light camera identifies a car, not a driver. Why should I get points on my license if it’s my spouse or child who ran the light?

    On the other hand, my car insurance policy does identify my car, and I can’t see any reason not to jack up the rates for a car that’s being driven dangerously.

  7. Theophylact Says:

    Your motto “Too easy to get, too hard to lose” probably should apply to a marriage license as well…

  8. Brad Templeton Says:

    Sadly, time and time again, red light cameras have been shown to be driven by the desire for revenue by the cities, and not for fair enforcement of the law.

  9. Opus the Poet Says:

    I still say to crush the cars of people who get multiple DUIs, with the driver handcuffed to the steering wheel.

    Ditto driving without a license and hitting someone.

  10. Rev. Nathan Speer Says:

    The thought of losing a license would be devastating to someone in a very rural area, where it may take them 15-30 minutes of driving to reach a place of business. Losing their license may mean having to relocate simply to be able to carry groceries home. Where it might be easy to make this claim in a place like New York City, where more than one mode of public transportation is available and inexpensive, even an Urban place like Los Angeles county suffers from poor bus transit and outrageous taxi cab fares; losing a license even in this urban area would be radical changes to lifestyle, especially if their morning traffic commute exceeds 1 hour, like many residents do.

    The comments relate to an issue of driving under the influence, which, yes, begs the question if one should be able to drive still after they receive one. But there are more clever options here than simply taking a license away. A man received over 10 DUIs when the judge passed down a final decision: the man must move to a residence directly parallel to his favorite bar. He never received a DUI again. It’s a funny anecdote, but it begs the question if simply taking a license away is the best preventative to driving while using a narcotic.

  11. Don Says:

    “(the red-light law she’s worked for has just cleared the Florida senate; and despite what you often hear from the fringes of the right, most people, when polled, actually support such devices, when used judiciously).”

    Seriously??? Maybe in your circles, but I know of no one outside of this site, and other sites like it where I could say that I know people who like RLCs.

    Heck, a quick poll of the people in my office didn’t turn up any fans either.

  12. Vin Says:

    Re: traffic light cameras and points on one’s license.

    I don’t know much about Florida, but in NY there is, in my view, a good reason not to do that. Yellow lights here are very, very short. I’ve gotten three red light camera tickets, and I have never gotten one other traffic ticket in eight years of driving. In each ticket, if you look at the photo, my car is almost entirely clear of the intersection, just sticking out a little in the back. What was I supposed to do? Slam on the brakes and get rear-ended? Stop in the crosswalk?

    My mother – a very, very cautious driver who I don’t think has ever gotten so much as a parking ticket – has gotten two or three red light camera violations. So long as the fine is small and it doesn’t impact your insurance or license, its just kind of an annoyance, so I don’t mind it much. Fact is, though, driving (like most things) is not always a simple application of rules – you obey the rules, but you also must react safely to subjective situations. Because a camera is obviously incapable of such subjectivity, it makes perfect sense to have lighter penalties for those violations.

  13. Jim S Says:

    There is another law that was considered but likely won’t pass the Florida Legislature this year. The idea was to increase penalties to folks who are at fault in a crash involving serious injury or death. The idea that you can run a stop sign or red light and kill someone and get 3 points on your license is atrocious. The law was originally designed to protect bicyclists, motorcyclists, and pedestrians, but the proponents realized wider support could be gained if there were no discrimination against any victim in such a crach. Hopefully the lawa will be passed next year.

  14. Vin Says:

    If you kill someone behind the wheel, you should have your license revoked, end of story. If you are judged at fault, you should be charged with vehicular manslaughter.

  15. Greg Says:

    About red light cameras – I think it comes down to Americans being all for personal responsibility – for the other guy :-) For themselves? Not so much.

    The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (aka the folks who pay when you t-bone someone at an intersection :-) have looked at the question of whether RLC’s decrease fatalities:

    Looks like
    a) yellow light lengthening doesn’t solve the problem
    b) red light cameras do help

    Now that doesn’t mean that some municipalities aren’t behaving badly and shortening yellows somewhere. But in Washington State the standard is that you have to *enter* the intersection on red, so merely *being* in the intersection wouldn’t cause a violation if you entered on yellow. Don’t know about NY.

    I’ll admit that one thing that annoys me is the prospect of getting an infraction for not making a full stop before turning right. I often proceed past the stop line and then stop where I can see better before turning right and could in theory get a ticket for that behavior (which I think is safe).

    But I’ll happily run that risk for the decreased likelihood of getting t-boned. I’ve seen one of those happen in person (not pretty), missed being t-boned myself by mere inches (my front bumper ended up scraping paint on the red light runner’s car – yay good brakes!), and have a friend with permanent brain damage due to a side impact – so I’m not very sympathetic to complaints from red light runners :-)

  16. John G. Spragge Says:

    As a cyclist, pedestrian, motorists, and parent, I would answer the people who have concerns about the “lifestyle” effects of losing a driver’s license: would you apply the same principles to people who behave recklessly with an Uzi or a Glock? A car, like all other powerful tools, can endanger many people if anyone misuses it. For that reason, we simply do not tolerate recklessness with most types of dangerous machinery, and we take a classic criminal justice approach most of the time. People have the freedom and the responsibility to solve their own problems. If they try to do so by breaking the law and endangering other people’s lives, we denounce and punish their behaviour, and we aim to deter others from doing the same. I see no excuse for impunity for dangerous drivers.

  17. Tony Toews Says:

    “a number of [points] which kept getting bumped down by visits to traffic schools ”

    Seems to me one such visit to a traffic school every ten years should be enough for you to learn the content and to be rewarded by reducing points.

  18. JeremyM Says:


    While coming to a full stop at red before turning right may annoy you, I believe failure to do so is certainly infraction-worthy. Though where I live, citations for failure to stop before turning right-on-red are as rare as unicorns, I think coasting around corners (sometimes without slowing) at a signal-controlled intersection is very dangerous. With a driver’s primary concern on whether or not an oncoming vehicle will prevent him/her from whipping it around a corner, they are impatiently looking left over their shoulder and ignorant of other possible goings-on around them at the intersection.

    As for proceeding past the stop line in order to “see better before turning right”…any intersection that requires you to move past the line (essentialy entering the intersection) in order to “safely” turn right-on-red should prohibit right-on-red turns. If it is unsafe to do so, it should be prohibited, and that should be enforced.

  19. Bryan Willman Says:

    All of the discussion about “people ought to lose their license or otherwise be actually banned from driving for X” and “in rural areas that would ruin their lives” misses another very key point.

    It would be a huge drag on everybody else’s life too. The issue is not just that Jo needs to drive to get to work (or to do his work) but also that his employer, family, people he buys stuff from, etc. ALL NEED him to be able to get around to them.

    It is *never* an issue of “just public safety” versus some “right” or “privilege” – it’s always a two part equation, safety ALWAYS has a cost (and a value.)

    The red light thing is simple – just change the constitution to say all money gathered by fines or seizures must go to some special fund and spread among all citizens. The police/DMV/Feds/whomever DO NOT GET TO KEEP THE MONEY. But you can still have fines. See which cameras stay (some would) and which go away.

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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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