(COLLEGE STATION, Texas) – Police officers and traffic engineers have a good idea of the behavior that causes crashes, injuries and death on the highways.
Drivers who go too fast for conditions, are drunk or drugged, sleepy or aggressive or have poorly maintained vehicles are more likely to get into trouble. If they and their passengers fail to use protection like seat belts, they are more likely to be killed or injured.
What is less clear is how to encourage safe driving. The easy answer is to increase fines and step up enforcement, but there is considerable evidence that tough laws are only part of the solution.
In Texas, there were 109 fatal crashes in work zones in 1999, the highest number in any state. The previous year, the state had doubled fines for speeding in construction zones and in 1999 police officers issued more than 12,000 tickets, a six-fold increase.
’The threat of penalty’
Gerald Ullmann, a transportation engineer and program manager for the Texas Transportation Institute, said that research there had shown little correlation between high fines and driver behavior. He believes that drivers are more likely to slow down if they think they are almost certain to be ticketed.
"Because of the limited resources available to law enforcement, it doesn't look like the threat of penalty is high enough," Ullmann said.
Ullmann also cautioned that an increase in funding for highway repair could be responsible for some of the continued high fatality rate.
Some police officials have also found little correlation between tickets and behavior. John Hagerty, public information officer for the New Jersey State Police, said that the state's accident rate continued to decline at a time when troopers were writing far fewer tickets because of the racial profiling controversy.
Creating a consensus
Elly Martin, a spokeswoman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said that officials need to build a public consensus that a certain type of behavior is not just illegal but wrong. She cited successful campaigns to get parents to use car seats for young children. NHTSA recently introduced a seat-belt campaign aimed at African-Americans and Hispanics, who are less likely to buckle up than other motorists.
The effort to reduce drunken driving deaths also combined traditional law enforcement and consensus building. Groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving lobbied for tougher laws and also mounted campaigns to convince the public that getting behind the wheel while impaired is a form of assault. Legislators responded by increasing penalties and authorizing DWI checkpoints.
Laws mandating certain types of behavior and banning others do affect behavior. NHTSA reported last year that the percentage of motorcyclists using helmets dropped from 97 percent to 66 percent in Texas and from 97 percent to 52 percent in Arkansas within months of mandatory helmet laws' repeal in 1997. Motorcycle deaths rose 21 percent in Arkansas in the first year after repeal and 31 percent in Texas.
A few years ago, New Jersey increased the speed limit to 65 mph on some highways and at the same time doubled the fines for speeding in the 65-mph zones, announcing an enforcement crackdown. That move had a perverse effect, at least in the short run. Drivers who sped along at 75 or 80 when the speed limit was 55 would hit the brakes when they reached the 65 mph zone.