Do Traffic Tickets Tamp Down Bad Driving or Merely Log It?

A study of Israeli drivers finds that being in a serious accident suggests you've probably gotten a ticket in recent years.
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(PHOTO: JOHN ROMAN IMAGES/SHUTTERSTOCK)

(PHOTO: JOHN ROMAN IMAGES/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Say you get a traffic ticket (if you can’t imagine that, I have plenty I’d be willing to share). Does that ticket suggest you’ve been caught and chastised, and having repented will now drive more sedately? Or does it mean you’re a menace to four-wheel society, and this sad incident is a mere milepost as you rev into more and more dangerous behavior?

A new study of Israeli drivers compares traffic tickets and serious auto accidents, and squarely finds that getting a ticket suggests you’re at higher risk of being in a subsequent serious accident. The study also makes the more intuitively obvious case that if you get lots of tickets, say six a year, you’re at a way higher chance of eventually being in a crash.

If you had already sided with the second possibility perhaps this connection was already obvious to you, but, according to Roni Factor at the University of Haifa’s School of Criminology, the academic literature hadn’t really nailed down that case—until now. Writing in the journal Accident Analysis & Prevention, Factor explained how he examined individual-level data for a fifth of all the licensed drivers in Israel over a 13-year period. That breaks down to just under 410,000 drivers, just over 830,000 traffic (not parking) tickets, and 22,562 crashes that resulted in injuries or deaths. He didn’t include fender-benders because those aren’t reported as consistently as serious accidents.

Looking at severe accidents between the years 2002 and 2008, Factor found that 60 percent of the drivers involved in a severe crash—some 0.58 percent of the drivers overall—had received a ticket.

[T]he probability of involvement in a fatal or severe crash is 65 percent higher for drivers who received one ticket per year (0.0063) compared to drivers who received no tickets (0.0038) during the seven years of the study.

There are a couple of caveats here. Traffic tickets are an imperfect vehicle for determining risky driving, since they only measure when you’re caught, not when you’re violating the law. And the individual data collected started in 1995, seven years before the accident counting began. Since younger drivers are already established as riskier and deadlier drivers, the shake-out might have been different—although probably only in degree—if a pool of them were included in the analysis.

Before you commit to walking everyone after being cited for that California stop, understand that statistically you’re still unlikely to be in accident: “Among all drivers who received traffic tickets, 99 percent were not involved in a fatal or severe crash.”

While they make up a minority of drivers, and a minority of accidents, routine traffic scofflaws are a menace, period: “The probability of fatal/severe crash involvement is 1,051 percent higher for drivers who received six tickets per year (0.0725) compared to those who received one ticket per year (0.0063) during the study period.” The net effect of that last sentence is as stark when presented differently: “The 6 percent of drivers who received more than one ticket per year during the research period were involved in 18 percent of the fatal and severe crashes.”

That’s pretty bad, but the mass of accidents still accrues to only moderately imperfect drivers. In the study period, 82 percent of serious accidents occurred to a large body of people who had gotten a relatively small number of tickets or none. And so we come to Factor’s recommendations—rather than focusing on really crazy drivers, the safest traffic enforcement program will establish broad and general enforcement to tamp all drivers’ excesses. Thus, as researchers looking at DUIs have also established, “a mass random enforcement program would have a greater impact on road safety than targeting high-risk offenders.”

Unfortunately for safety, the benefits of blanket enforcement fade once the heat is off. (Here’s a newish article comparing northern Kosovo, where enforcement had been practically nil for 13 years, with Serbia bearing that behavior out.) Plus, in a period of pinched budgets, putting more traffic cops on the beat may be a hard sell. Maybe it’s time to follow Oregon’s example, and allow citizens to write traffic tickets.

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