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Roads


This man's reckless driving killed four people, including two children. Should he be in jail?

This is part 3 in a series on traffic enforcement. Read part 1 on DC's proposed fines and part 2 about how traffic cameras could be more swift, certain, and fair.

Though raising traffic fines might not deter lawbreaking, people often feel a harsh punishment is appropriate anyway for the most egregious acts. Here's one man who was about the worst driver ever. What if he had to spend 23 years making roads safer rather than sitting in jail?


A car crash. Not the one we're talking about. Photo by IceBone on Flickr.

One common response to criticism about the proposed higher fines was that they will also take the most dangerous drivers off the streets. Suspending a license for a repeat offender is the sort of punishment that should be much more common. Sadly, many jurisdictions are reluctant to take away driving privileges because people have few alternatives. But in DC, there are alternatives to driving.

Beyond the valuable tool of license suspension, however, greater punishments may also not achieve much. It's understandable to feel that if people are driving 55 in a 30 mph zone, or if they door or hit cyclists, they deserve anything that's coming to them. They've done something obviously very dangerous and/or done actual damage. Why not punish these people severely?

While it may make us feel better, we just know that it doesn't actually stop the next person. It didn't work for the "tough on crime" efforts of the 1990s, and while traffic safety isn't the same thing, but there's also not a lot of reason to believe this approach will work here.

To think about this more, let's look at one of the most egregious examples out there, a former Google sous chef named Nicola Bucci. I worked at Google, but didn't know him personally; he worked there after I'd moved to New York, but I know many people who did know him.

In 2006, Bucci hit another car and killed two children while speeding in the wrong lane of a road on a hill in Fairfield, California, northeast of San Francisco.

In case this doesn't make him seem unsympathetic enough, Bucci had actually killed two people before, on I-80 in the Sierra Nevadas in 1994, where he fell asleep at the wheel. He'd been convicted of vehicular manslaughter and done some jail time then.

A jury convicted Bucci of murder for these two deaths, and now he's in prison serving a 23-year sentence.

Is this just?

In some sense, that feels good, since he's killed more people than some serial killers. But other than the possibility of taking him off the road so he personally doesn't kill anyone else, the roads aren't getting any safer because of it.

Has the press around the case in California (some articles here and there) made people drive less when tired? Probably not much. Is there anything about Bucci's experience that is reminding California drivers day in and day out about the dangers of driving tired? No.

Clearly, Bucci should not be allowed to drive again, but his privileges should have been revoked after his first conviction. If he had to spend 23 years going around to every driver's ed class in the state telling his story or something, that would achieve quite a lot more.

Oh, and the state's road engineers were responsible, too. Another jury in 2011 found Caltrans 35% responsible for the crash because of the road's unsafe design. The state had to pay $29 million to the victims, and only then did it put in a divider.

Meanwhile, Bucci's family is suffering, and some of his former coworkers have been trying to help him get his sentence overturned. Those friends are not working to help educate people about the lessons of Bucci's experience to make the roads safer. Ideally, they would be.

It's understandable to want to punish people who do terrible things, but people drive tired, don't yield to buses, speed, and park in bike lanes all the time. To make an example of one or two of the worst offenders just lets society feel better and then ignore all of the lessons of the incident.

We need better road design, lower speed limits, license revocations, and "certain, swift, and fair" enforcement to make roads safe. If jail time or (getting back to part 1) high fines get people to change behavior, then by all means let's do that, but absent evidence, it seems like a way to feel that we're working on the problem instead of actually solving it.

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Roads


DC may raise traffic fines. Criminology says that's unhelpful.

DC's new plan for Vision Zero, the effort to reduce road deaths to zero, contains significant steps forward like lowering some speed limits and trying out protected intersections. It also raises some fines by 350% to 1000%. Is that wise? I'm not convinced.


Photo by Wayan Vota on Flickr.

Here are some of the old and new fines:

OffenseOld fineNew fine
Speeding 26+ mph over the speed limit$350$1,000
Not yielding to a busNone$500
Not stopping at a stop sign$50$100
Not yielding to a pedestrian when turning right on red$50$200
Parking in a bike lane (private car)$65$200
Parking in a bike lane (commercial vehicle)$65$300
Dooring a cyclist$25$100
Striking a cyclist$50$500

Some of these are pretty egregious. To drive more than 26 mph over the speed limit, for instance, means going over 55 in a 30 mph zone. That's fast. Striking a cyclist, of course, is a horrible thing to do, even if drivers almost always don't mean to.

Some of these, though, represent everyday, if dangerous, behaviors. People turn right on red without yielding to pedestrians or fail to yield to buses pulling into traffic all the time, though they shouldn't. Will the news of a multi-hundred-dollar fine jolt people into thinking twice about these actions?

The goal here is to change people's everyday behavior—to get them to realize that when a bus is trying to get into traffic, or when a person is crossing at a crosswalk, that it's wrong to try to pass the bus before it merges in or turn right without waiting for the person to finish crossing.

What criminology can teach us about traffic safety

There's more research about changing behavior when it comes to lower-level criminal offenses, like drug dealing. UCLA law NYU public policy professor Mark Kleiman has demonstrated that "swift, certain, and fair" penalties—when most offenders get caught quickly but face lower punishments—have far greater effect of changing behavior than large but rarely-imposed ones.

In traffic enforcement, it's currently true that almost none of the people who run stop signs, turn right on red illegally, speed, park in bike lanes, etc. get caught. Cranking up the fine but not raising the certainty of catching offenders seems to be falling into the same trap as when lawmakers lengthened prison sentences. They didn't stop drug dealing, but did end up incarcerating a huge proportion of the American population at great cost to taxpayers and to society.

I asked Kleiman on Twitter about the fine proposal. He, and DC Councilmember David Grosso, don't think they will work:

What's that third point? Make fines proportional to income? It's an interesting idea which Finland and several other European countries use. The "day fine" charges people some proportion of what they might make in a day, or a week, or a month.

There's a real danger that high fines will end up pulling even more money from poor communities, just as we've seen in places like Ferguson, Missouri. As Adonia Lugo has written, there's also the danger that greater enforcement by police will just exacerbate existing racial bias.

Black and white people use marijuana at nearly equal rates, but black people are (or were in 2013, anyway) eight times as likely to get arrested for marijuana in DC as white people. Will $500 fines for not yielding to buses be different?

Correction: The initial version of this post incorrectly listed Professor Mark Kleiman's affiliation as UCLA. He was formerly with UCLA but is now at NYU. Also, he is a professor of public policy, not law.

This is part 1 in a 3-part series. Read the next part about how traffic cameras could make enforcement swift, certain, and fair.

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Bicycling


Cyclists more often get the blame if they die in a crash

Over 100 Washington area cyclists have died in motor vehicle crashes since 1987. Previously, I mapped out their locations. What about the outcomes? Police fault cyclists and drivers equally, except in Prince George's County, where they overwhelmingly blame cyclists.


Photo by The Bike Fed on Flickr.

Cyclists are found at fault more than drivers

I collected data on fatal crashes involving both a cyclist and a driver in the region since 1987. The data came from media reports and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS).

I was able to determine who was found at fault in 83% of the crashes. Cyclists got the blame 58.9% of the time. This could be because cyclists are just more reckless than drivers, but it could also be that there is a failure in the reporting itself.

There's a big discrepancy between the two sources. Of all of the cases in which fault was assigned, 34.4% relied only on data from a FARS report. In these cases, cyclists got the blame 74.1% of the time. In contrast, where the details of the crash came from a media report or from both a media report and a FARS report, cyclists only got the blame in 30 out of 59 crashes, or 50.8% of the time.

Prince George's finds cyclists at fault far more often

Prince George's County has has the most bike fatalities of any jurisdiction in the area. It's also the place cyclists are most often found at fault.

Cyclists got the blame in 76.7% of Prince George's fatal crashes, compared to 52.9% in Northern Virginia, 50% in Montgomery County, and 48% in DC. In fact, outside Prince George's County, drivers and cyclists in the region share fault 50-50.

Could police bias explain these discrepancies?

Responding police officers are responsible for filling out FARS reports, so police bias might be a factor.

For example, in several cases the only contributing factor was "Walking/Riding With Or Against Traffic, Playing, Working, Sitting, Lying, Standing, Etc. In Roadway." This could mean a lot of things, including something as simple as the cyclist riding in the road.

The inherently one-sided interview can also play a role. Often the only living witness, the driver, has a strong incentive to blame the cyclist, and perhaps the police do not do enough to challenge these claims.

On the other side of things, it's possible that the media only reported on crashes where the driver was to blame. My data set has far more news stories on the investigation, subsequent trial, and verdict when the driver was criminally at fault. Perhaps stories where the driver is at fault, such as the recent fatal crash near Baltimore, are more appealing to the media.

In addition to asking why the county is so deadly for cyclists, Prince George's County needs to ask the question of why cyclists who die there are so much more likely to be blamed. Are Prince George's cyclists worse? Do the roads there invite risky cycling? Is there a difference in the way police and journalists investigate and report crashes in Prince George's?

If it's bias, someone needs to address it for the sake of both justice and safety. If it's cyclists riding dangerously, then the county needs more education and enforcement. If it's road design, the county needs to change the roads. Being such a negative outlier should be cause for alarm.

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Government


If you're parking, be especially careful on these blocks

DC has created maps of where parkers get the most tickets downtown and citywide (but it's mostly downtown).


Map by DDOT.

The red lines show places with 4-5½ tickets per foot of curb space, followed by yellow (3-4), gray (2-3), blue (1-2) and green (0-1). Clearly, M Street between Connecticut Avenue and 20th Street is the hotspot—any idea why?

What else do you notice in this map?

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Roads


Topic of the week: You don't have to put on the red light (cameras)

Red light cameras are supposed to improve safety, but in 2013 their use actually went down. Are they on the wane? Our contributors give their insight.


Photo by Wayan Vota on Flickr.

Modesto, California has found that cameras may not be worth the trouble. They don't monitor all the lanes at an intersection, most of the revenue goes to the vendor that operates the system, and the fines are shockingly high. And studies, including one of local Virginia jurisdictions, conclude the red light camera effect on safety is ambiguous. Should we fix the problems with cameras, or focus our efforts elsewhere?

Dan Malouff: Many people don't like cameras because they intrude on our collective sense of entitlement to break traffic laws with impunity. But that entitlement should be intruded upon. Yes, governments should of course strive to get cameras right and deploy them fairly, but laws should be enforced. If it turns out that enforcing these laws is somehow unsafe (a claim I'm skeptical of), then the law should change, not the tactic of enforcing it.

Canaan Merchant: Data I'd seen before had convinced me of a red light camera's effectiveness. This and other studies I've seen recently have cast some of that into doubt. Still, I think the problems that people have with automated traffic enforcement mainly stem from poor management in developing the systems, usually by just selecting a vendor without a clear oversight process, and problems that people have with due process once a ticket is issued.

The former should absolutely be an area of concern while the latter may just be indicative of problems that have always existed but ignored because an individual's likelihood of getting a ticket was lower. If both of those issues are handled competently then I think camera enforcement will generally be a net-positive for a given intersection.

Still the best way to tackle the problem would be to make red lights more irrelevant. That means focusing on solutions that move people without requiring the use of a car.

Neil Flanagan: Traffic cameras, whether they're at red lights or to control speeding, should always be a second choice. Better design of the roadway should always be the priority. Narrower lanes, neck-downs, medians, and shorter distances between intersections can discourage speeding and remind drivers that they're approaching an intersection. Marking the pavement where a driver should brake if they see yellow might also help.

The goal should be to make intersections safe for all users, not uphold the law strictly. Starting from there, you can see another problem. Left out of this article, too, were non-motorists. Cars are engineered to protect drivers. The street is the only protection a pedestrian has.

That said, I'll echo the sense of entitlement to the right-of-way. The top comments on the article are a slew of excuses for traffic violations, like this one by "Biceps:"

Perfect example: a co-worker of mine got a photo of herself from an RLC in the mail - it was *classic*. It was a perfect pic of her driving through the intersection, looking way to her left, mouth wide agape, with a cellphone right up against her head. She didn't even remember running the light. It was a [expletive] awesome photo."
It wasn't her fault, he explains: she wasn't trying to speed through the light, she just wasn't paying attention! The engineer of the recent Metro-North accident was not given the same benefit of the doubt for spacing out, even though railroads are still safer per passenger-mile.

Adam Froehlig: I have always seen red light cameras as a local jurisdiction's attempt to replace traffic enforcement with a revenue generation tool. This is especially apparent in DC, where the revenues the cameras generate is well publicized and leads to much of the public angst against the program. A well-designed program puts this revenue back into safety programs and street improvements, but DC simply adds it to its general fund.

The safety record of red light cameras is a bit mixed. While they do help prevent the more serious right-angle crashes that often result in injuries and the occasional fatality, they can actually increase the overall crash rate due to rear-end crashes caused by the lead driver slamming on their brakes to avoid the red (and the camera ticket) and the driver behind them not stopping in time to avoid the rear-end crash.

Another item to consider: due to legal reasons, the red light camera can only fine the owner of the vehicle, it cannot target the operator. While the vehicle owner is usually the operator, this is not always a case. Compare this with a law enforcement official pulling over a vehicle and issuing the driver a ticket, where the driver (if unsuccessful in their "defense") will not only have to pay a fine, but will also lose points on their license.

While it helps reduce crash severity, it's at best a mediocre replacement for an actual law enforcement official doing traffic enforcement.

Ben Ross: Surely the reason for rear end crashes at red light cameras is that the driver in the first car doesn't expect the camera and then stops suddenly, and the driver in the second car also doesn't expect the camera and is therefore unprepared for the first driver's sudden maneuver. With more cameras these problems would vanish. It's like with cyclists, there's safety in numbers.

Abigail Zenner: Although I wish that red light and speed cameras were not needed, sadly drivers' impatience has a tendency to cause very dangerous situations. We also see that law enforcement either cannot be everywhere all the time or cannot always pull over the driver who runs a red light. Drivers also complain that red light cameras catch legal right turns at some intersections, although I have often wondered if the driver came to a complete stop prior to the right turn.

I would love to see some more awareness campaigns on driver attentiveness and explain to drivers why we have the laws we do. Many times, impatient behavior by drivers actually slows traffic down and creates more hazard.

I am fascinated by some experiments, like the one in Texas that rewards drivers for good driving behavior with cash or prizes. Cameras could also provide these rewards. The winner of the VW Fun Theory contest had this idea to enroll good drivers in a lottery when caught driving at or below the speed limit. Maybe we can come up with more carrots and more education to balance out the stick of a ticket.

Jim Titus: Do you remember what it was like before the red-light cameras?

We had trains on tires. Drivers regularly ran red lights as long as they were within 30 feet of the rear end of another car going through the intersection. Drivers with a green light often had to edge their way into these trains of red-light runners. Most drivers in the District of Columbia stop at red lights now.

Maybe today, some tailgating distracted drivers rear-end cars that stop at yellow lights. But in those days, people who stopped at newly red lights faced the same fate.

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