Dependable Erection

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Traffic enforcement

I want to thank commenter eah919 for pointing me to Tom Vanderbilt's recent article in, In Praise of Traffic Tickets.

I've emailed copies of the article to our Police Chief, City Manager, and Council members. If you agree that the article makes some very good points, particularly the analogy of speeders and other driving violators as mobile "broken windows," (a point which Michael Bacon and i have both made on numerous occasions) please consider letting our elected and appointed officials know.

Email them at:
Tom.Bonfield@DurhamNC.Gov; Jose.Lopez@DurhamNC.Gov; Council@DurhamNC.Gov.

Some excerpts from the article:
The consequences of not issuing tickets were shown in a recent study of traffic violations in New York City. From 2001 to 2006, the number of fatalities in which speeding was implicated rose 11 percent. During the same period, the number of speeding summons issued by the NYPD dropped 11 percent. Similarly, summonses for red-light-running violations dropped 13 percent between 2006 and 2008, even as the number of crashes increased. As an alternative approach, consider France, where the dangerous driver is as storied a cliché as a beret on the head and a baguette under the arm. As the ITE Journal notes, since 2000, France has reduced its road fatality rate by an incredible 43 percent. Instrumental in that reduction has been a roll-out of automated speed cameras and a toughening of penalties. For example, negligent driving resulting in a death, which often results in little punishment in the United States, carries a penalty of five years in prison and a 75,000-euro fine.

The "folk crime" belief helps thwart increased traffic enforcement: Why should the NYPD, whose resources and manpower are already stretched, bust people for dangerous driving when they could be going after murderers? Well, apart from the fact that more people are killed in traffic fatalities in New York City every year than they are in "stranger homicides," there is the idea, related to the link between on-and-off-road criminality, that targeting traffic violators might be an effective way to combat other crimes. Which brings us to the third benefit of traffic tickets: increased public safety. Hence the new Department of Justice initiative called DDACTS, or Data Driven Approaches to Crime and Traffic Safety, which has found that there is often a geographic link between traffic crashes and crime. By putting "high-visibility enforcement" in hot spots of both crime and traffic crashes, cities like Baltimore have seen reductions in both.

The program recalls the "broken windows" theory, made famous by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling, which argued, using the metaphor of one broken window on a building inexorably leading to more, that not enforcing smaller, "quality-of-life" issues encourages larger transgressions:

Window-breaking does not necessarily occur on a large scale because some areas are inhabited by determined window-breakers whereas others are populated by window-lovers; rather, one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing.

Both broken windows and data-driven policing have offered as at least partial explanations for New York City's declining crime rate, and it would seem logical that a similar program would help reduce the level of traffic deaths and injury. One person driving fast, or going through a red light, or even failing to signal, is essentially a broken window—a sign that no one cares. But again we come up against social resistance in equating aggressive driving with crime. This was nowhere more evident than in a review of my book Traffic by James Q. Wilson himself, who opened with the statement: "I drive my car very fast." Now, I have no way of knowing how fast "very fast" is or where he does this fast driving. And even though the review is a nice one, I couldn't help but notice the irony that this behavior is presumably against the law, and the fact that he does it without reprimand contributes to a lessened respect for traffic law and perhaps the law itself. ("We suggest," as it was put in the broken-windows article, "that 'untended' behavior also leads to the breakdown of community controls.")

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  • I blogged about this piece too. I'm on board with his larger point that increased traffic enforcement leads to increased traffic safety, but I'm really uncomfortable with the idea that traffic stops are great for catching criminals, because that tends to lead police officers to treat us all like criminals.

    By Blogger Brian, at 12:43 PM  

  • Well, if you've been pulled over for speeding or running a red light, technically you're already in violation of the law . . .

    By Blogger Barry, at 12:57 PM  

  • I want to know how many times it's ok to pull or stop me for *nothing*.

    By Blogger Joseph H., at 1:30 PM  

  • Haven't seen any suggestions that cops start pulling people over for "nothing," have you?

    By Blogger Barry, at 2:06 PM  

  • I thought this piece was interesting . . . although completely uninformed by the realities of racial profiling and being stopped for "DWB. "

    By Blogger Kelly, at 6:06 PM  

  • The topic has definitely come up in private conversations i've had. But i think it's a completely separate discussion from the conversation about whether or not our traffic laws are being enforced. Representatives of Durham police, in response to my posting of this article on one of the Partners Against Crime listservs, basically provided a list of reasons why they don't enforce our traffic laws more seriously.

    Fear of being accused of racial profiling was not one of them.

    By Blogger Barry, at 8:42 PM  

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