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How bad government might create bad drivers

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A car. Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Tired of bad drivers on the road? Maybe you should blame bad government.

That idea comes from an interesting new theory put out by James O'Malley at the blog CityMetric. After bad experiences with drivers in Romania, O'Malley wondered if the country's historically tumultuous governance had anything to do with it. So he looked at data for traffic deaths — a logical proxy for people's driving skills — and respect in the rule of law.

He found a strong correlation between traffic deaths and scores given by the World Justice Project on rule of law, which grades countries based on surveys with 100,000 people and 2,400 experts on dozens of indicators:

Traffic deaths correlate with weak rule of law. James O'Malley / CityMetric

One caveat: The chart only shows a correlation, not causation. So this remains just a theory — one that needs to be validated by research that controls for other variables.

But there's a potential causal explanation for the correlation, as O'Malley explained:

Traffic cops are very visible in downtime Bucharest, but it appears that few motorists worry about them: rule breaking is so endemic, they are clearly unable to fully enforce the law. (The "state" in this analogy isn’t strong enough to enforce them). The aggressive driving might also suggest that motorists have little faith that others are likely to respect the supposed rules.

In other words, people respond to how likely they are to get in trouble. So on roads where cops are more likely to pull over people for bad driving, maybe drivers are more likely to adhere to speed limits and avoid anything that might look like reckless driving.

This response is something that many people do without even thinking about it. Consider this: Have you ever looked along the highway and decided you can go over the speed limit because there are no traffic officers in sight? Do you know of some roads where you can consistently speed because the cops aren't around? This is, essentially, what the chart is showing — except in some places, the rule of law is so bad that many people assume cops are never around, so the roads turn into a free-for-all.

What's more, this doesn't apply only to driving. It applies to law enforcement more broadly, too.

To deter crime, law enforcement needs to be consistent


Over the past few decades, the US has focused on raising the severity of punishment for virtually all crimes. This focus has put America in the bad position of leading the world in incarceration. The research shows this increase in incarceration has done little to fight crime.

One reason for that: It's not the severity of punishment that matters; it's the certainty and swiftness of punishment. Mark Kleiman, criminal justice expert at New York University's Marron Institute, previously explained:

Way back in the eighteenth century, Cesare Beccaria — the Italian criminologist from whom Jeremy Bentham borrowed not only the term "utility" but many of his ideas for criminal-justice reform — identified three characteristics that determine the deterrent efficacy of a threatened punishment: its swiftness, its certainty, and its severity. Of the three, severity is least important. If punishment is swift and certain, it need not be severe to be efficacious. If punishment is uncertain and delayed, it will not be efficacious even if it is severe. (It was only two and a half centuries after Beccaria that psychologists and behavioral economists discovered that some degree of excessive present-orientation, and excessive discounting of the risk of large losses, is normal.) The sort of bad gamble represented by most offenses tends to attract precisely those whose departures from rationality are most egregious.

As Kleiman noted, certainty of punishment is crucial because it can help shape a person's ideas about whether bad behavior will lead to short-term consequences. Kleiman wrote:

Why do some people keep committing crimes, to their own evident disadvantage? Because they’re present-oriented and impulsive, with deficient capacities for shaping their current behavior in light of their future goals, and with poor judgment about their actual odds of getting caught: all characteristics, as noted above, likely to be produced by growing up in high-crime neighborhoods. (Neglectful and abusive parenting also contributes, of course. So does exposure to environmental lead[.])

This phenomenon is something the research and history have consistently shown. As one example, in her incredible book Ghettoside, journalist Jill Leovy argued that the high levels of crime in minority neighborhoods are driven by police neglect: Because residents know that the police aren't likely to solve homicides, they take the law in their own hands — so when a shooting happens, they feel a need to retaliate with another shooting. And the cycle of crime continues.

This fundamentally defies the original purpose of law. Leovy explained:

In the dim early stirring of civilization, many scholars believe, law itself was developed as a response to legal "self-help": people's desire to settle their own scores. Rough justice slowly gave way to organized state monopolies on violence. The low homicide rate of some modern democracies are, perhaps, an aberration in human history. They were built, as the scholar Eric Monkkonen said, not by any formal act, but "by a much longer developmental process whereby individuals willingly give up their implicit power to the state."

These ideas are also increasingly backed by empirical research. The realization that certainty and swiftness matter so much is driving some of the most promising anti-drug interventions in the US.

In South Dakota, for example, people who consistently are caught doing bad things as a result of their alcohol use — drunk driving, for instance — can be put into the 24/7 Sobriety Program. Once in, participants are tested daily for alcohol in their blood or breath. If it turns out they drank, they are quickly thrown in jail — typically for one or two nights. The idea is that people lose their freedom to drink if they repeatedly show that they can't responsibly do it, so they will be punished consistently and quickly, although not necessarily severely, if they fail an alcohol test.

The results: Studies from the RAND Corporation have linked the program to drops in mortality, DUI arrests, and domestic violence arrests.

South Dakota's 24/7 Sobriety Program isn't the only effort that produces these types of results. A paper by Angela Hawken and Mark Kleiman found large reductions in positive drug tests and arrests among people in Hawaii's similar HOPE Probation program. And there are many more examples.

So whether you want people to obey driving rules or stop other crimes, the key is to be swift and certain. Otherwise, you might get a free-for-all on your roads.

Watch: The racism of the US criminal justice system, in 10 charts