I got a speeding ticket – and it wasn’t expensive enough
August 12, 2013 1 Comment
A couple years ago I was driving between Austin and Lubbock late at night, returning from a weekend of visiting friends at another college. Somewhere around the 5-hour mark I saw the two colors no late-night lead-foot driver wants to see: blue and red. A quick look at my dash and I knew this wasn’t going to go well. I pulled over onto the shoulder of US-183 and turned off my car. “84 in a 65, that’s really not THAT bad,” I thought to myself. Unfortunately the state trooper did not agree with me, and promptly issued me a speeding ticket. Great, my first ticket. I took a look at the paper after he was gone and saw the fee – “Wow, that’s…only slightly annoying” – $110 later and 5 hours of my time at comedy defensive driving and I had fulfilled my debt to the great Lampasas County.
So what’s the problem with the story above? Nothing changed. I was a little poorer, the county was a little richer, I lost 5 hours of my time, but yet I continued to break the law. In the eyes of the law, I broke the rules, I was punished, and I should learn my lesson. But I didn’t. Their system had failed (This takes a huge assumption that the government’s motive behind issuing speeding tickets is to discourage that type of behavior. One could argue that they issue speeding tickets for the almost one-trillion dollars a year in revenue minor driving citations generate). The problem is the government’s incentive system for enforcing speed limits is ineffective. On average, motorists who speed will continue to speed even after receiving a ticket. I say on average because there are those drivers who would change their behavior after receiving a ticket – similar to how I learned to turn the light off in my bedroom as a kid once my dad started taking 10 cents out of my allowance for each infraction – but more on this later. So what’s the solution? Raise the fines for speeding seems like the obvious choice. So let’s explore that first.
I know there may be those who take offense to my comment about the $110 fine being only slightly annoying. $110 means different things to different people. To me, it’s annoying. To another, it could mean not making rent (or paying off their credit card bill). The significance of the fine to you is inversely proportional to your income. So if my ticket had been $300 would I still speed today? Probably so. $1,000? Probably not. It’s difficult to find an exact cutoff of when you would stop speeding to avoid the fine, but everyone can come up with a ballpark figure. So maybe the government should assign speeding ticket values proportional to your income, right? Would this work? Maybe, but evidence shows it won’t. In Switzerland, your speeding tickets are based on the offender’s income levels. There have been several well-known cases of $103,000-and-up speeding tickets given out in Switzerland. Despite having the same impact on their income as everyone else, these incredibly high tickets do not deter driving 120 mph in your Ferrari.
I know what you’re thinking. Those people getting the $250,000 speeding tickets are billionaires. They don’t really care about money. So they’ll buy one less island this year, big deal. It’s not like they can’t afford to eat this month because of their ticket. And yes, that is a valid point. But think about the last time you drove for an extending period of time, either on the highway or in the city. Do you remember what type of cars you saw zooming past you at abhorrent speeds? Chances are you don’t – because with the exception of sports cars, there does not seem to be a pattern between the type of car you’re in and the care for the posted speed limit you have.
I’ve seen $2,000 clunkers and $120,000 Mercedes fly recklessly down the road all the same. Given that they’re driving on the same roads around the same time, they both have equal probabilities of getting a ticket. Assuming the type of car you drive is a correlation with your income level, this means some drivers who would be impacted greatly by a ticket exhibit the same behavior as other drivers who are only slightly annoyed at the ticket. That is because these drivers are unresponsive to the negative incentive the ticket represents. One of the biggest lessons in economics is that people respond to incentives – but not everyone responds to the same incentives in the same way. Instead of a negative incentive the government could try a positive incentive.
A positive incentive is a reward. A bonus for doing something right and displaying the behavior that the government is encouraging – in this example, driving within the speed limit. An example of a reward for driving under the speed limit would be the exact opposite of a ticket. You would get a monetary reward for being a “good” driver. The enforcement system would be different. I know I would hate to be pulled over and told that I was driving well. That would be more than just slightly annoying. But, with GPS technology, it would be very easy to track the speed of a vehicle and know what the posted speed limit is. This would obviously be a program people would sign up for and give their consent to be monitored, but they would earn money based on the number of miles they travel for not going over the speed limit.
It may be against the conventional wisdom for the government to reward citizens for following the law, and some people may say you shouldn’t get a reward for doing what you’re supposed to do, but a combined positive and negative incentive program would be the most effective way to get the desired outcome.
Do you hate this idea? Do you love it? Do you have any ideas for a more effective incentives program? Send your thoughts, comments, and feedback to Craig at firstname.lastname@example.org.