Blackadder’s Lair

The home of many a cunning plan

Rules of the Road

Suppose the government were to announce tomorrow that it was no longer going to enforce any of its traffic laws. Stoplights would continue to work, parking spaces would still be clearly marked according to type, etc., but if a cop saw you run a red light or park in a no parking zone, he would be powerless to do anything about it (other than give you a dirty look). What effect would this new policy have on people’s behavior?

My guess is that things would change a lot less than we might expect. There are a lot of traffic laws which it is a good idea to follow for reasons that have nothing to do with the fear of getting a ticket. To take an extreme case, driving on the wrong side of the road is liable to get you not just fined but killed (in fact, if the law says drive on the right and popular custom is to drive on the left, you would be well advised to follow the custom and ignore the law, regardless of the potential fine). Likewise, it makes sense not to run red lights, drive at unsafe speeds, go the wrong way down a one way street etc., because doing these things increases your chance of getting into an accident, which is worse than any ticket. There are, of course, also plenty of cases where obeying traffic laws will not increase your safety (e.g. going above the speed limit but at a reasonably safe speed, running a red light when you know no one is coming, etc.) But as anyone who has ever driven can attest, people generally don’t follow these laws terribly well. No doubt to some extent people obey these laws because they don’t want to get a ticket, but the truth is that the chances of that happening in any given case are pretty slim.

Now one of the functions of the traffic laws is to solve a coordination problem. Speeding through a green light is safe only if people stop at red lights, and it’s possible that in the absence of legal sanctions people’s confidence that this would happen could break down, which would have the effect of turning each traffic light into a four-way stop (which is what happens we the traffic light goes out for some reason).

On the other hand, maybe not. I am told that in Mexico City, male police officers are not allowed to enforce traffic laws, out of fear that they will use traffic stops as a means of extracting bribes (given the history of the Mexican police force, this is not an irrational concern). Since there are only a handful of female police officers in Mexico City, this means that the traffic laws there are basically not enforced. I’ve never been to Mexico City myself, but I’m told that people there still drive through green lights at full speed, (they drive through reds too, but more slowly and with attentiveness). It could be that American drivers are simply more risk averse (I’ve noticed a devil-may-care attitude among a lot of drivers in foreign countries that would put our reckless drivers to shame), but it suggests that what would happen under these circumstances is at least an open question.

Such are the thoughts that occupy me on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

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May 18, 2008 - Posted by | Driving, Law, Weirdness

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