Statistics and Crime: “We are all criminals.”

Longtime readers will remember these posts on traffic laws. I’ve got another post coming down the pipe on traffic circles soon, and am also planning a post or two on the (mis)use of statistics and probability by political figures. However, this morning I was also reminded that statistics can be used for good by this post:

Where am I going with all these numbers? Over 100,000 people a day (about 112 thousand) receive a speeding ticket in the United States. That’s just speeding tickets – no parking tickets, no DUIs, just speeding. Now granted some of those tickets are going to be for driving crazy fast and doing stupid things, but at some point they start calling that behavior “reckless driving” which, again, isn’t part of the above statistic….

The 112,000 or so tickets given each day add up to over 41 million tickets per year – that’s 19.5% of the populous! Between 1 in 5 and 1 in 6 American citizens will be ticketed for speeding this year, and that’s not accounting for children or those who otherwise don’t drive. About 20% of the U.S. is below legal driving age so even if we say that ALL of the remaining 80% (166,996,430 approximately) of Americans drive a car regularly (they don’t) then that means 24.5% of Americans of driving age are ticketed every year.

[via @newsyc20]

The whole thing is recommended. I agree with the point that calling a behavior that is commonly engaged in by a substantial minority or even the majority of a population criminal is silly. This is because, in my view, the law should be a clarifier of expectations. Speed limits no longer (if they ever did) accurately express the expectations of most people that you won’t speed. Instead, most people recognize that 5-10 miles per hour above the limit is the commonly expected speed, at least in urban and suburban areas where going the speed limit can actually be dangerously slow.

On the other hand, I will point out that if cities and states lose the revenue from speeding tickets they will probably seek to make up for it elsewhere. Since it’s harder to raise taxes than to enforce ridiculous laws, this would probably lead to even more ridiculous practices. I’ve got a hypothesis in the back of my mind that much of government is about hiding costs–but that is the subject of another post.

2 thoughts on “Statistics and Crime: “We are all criminals.”

  1. “This is because, in my view, the law should be a clarifier of expectations.”

    This can’t be the only role of a law. Imagine a world where 65% of people regularly engaged in street fights. It would hardly follow that the state doesn’t have an interest, in purely utilitarian grounds, of preventing future violence regardless if a lot of people regularly engage in the behavior.

    One of the few things we know about traffic is that faster speeds result in more accidents and more fatalities/injuries from those accidents, and the reasons for that are pretty clear (faster speeds mean less reaction time, less reaction effect, and higher speed collisions). It seems to me that given the financial and personal costs suffered by those immediately involved (including the potentially error-free victims in a mutliparty accident) and the time costs suffered by those indirectly involved (traffic jams and therefore including corporate costs from late deliveries, etc), the state has an interest in reducing accidents…and therefore in reducing speeds.

    I think that there’s room here for some policy adjustments. Raising speed limits in some specific areas is probably warranted. Moving from human enforcement to automated systems (flashing lights along the side of the road needlessly endangers cop and speeder, as well as distracts those still driving and possibly blocks a lane of traffic, not to mention encourages police departments to hire more police officers to staff highway medians). Automated enforcement also provides a sort of panopticon effect whereby enforcement is always an option and inevitable (no talking your way out of it). Better enforcement basically means setting a stricter standard for expectation. It also frees up enforcement officers for more important tasks, like catching actually reckless drivers (intoxicated drivers and the like).

  2. Pingback: Traffic Circles and Safety | You Study Politics, Right?

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