In praise of traffic cops

Due to budget cuts, 35% of Oregon State Highway Police were laid off. These mass layoffs dramatically reduced citations and resulted in a 10-20% increase in injuries and fatalities.

The strongest effects were under fair weather conditions outside of city-limits where state police employment levels were most relevant.

These results in DeAngelo and Hansen’s “Life and Death in the Fast Lane: Police Enforcement and Traffic FatalitiesAmerican Economic Journal: Economic Policy 2014 suggest that a highway fatality can be prevented with $309,000 of additional expenditures on traffic police.

A standard measure of the “value of a statistical life” is it is worth taking regulatory or law enforcement actions that reduce the risks of death when the costs of these actions are less than about $9 million per life saved.

Road safety is an area where James Buchanan’s punishment dilemma is strong:

For some laws or behavioural rules, the individual’s self-interest may override adherence [to the law], at least in certain circumstances.

Traffic violations offer a good example here.

Recognizing that he may himself violate traffic regulations on occasion, the individual may be reluctant to accept institutions that impose severe penalties, despite his preferences that all “others” than himself should be led to obey the general rules by sufficiently severe sanctions.

Just as the individual prefers that all others abide voluntarily by law while he remains free to violate it, so, too, he prefers that differentially severe punishment for law violation be meted out to others than himself.

Voters are less than keen to support strong penalties and convict when sitting on juries because of the fear that there but for the grace of god go I: that they would be in the dock at the receiving end of the heavy punishments.

If we commit to punish offenders and those who might commit offenses are deterred by this commitment to punish them, there would be fewer offenses. This also means doing the unpleasant things of meeting out these punishment when there are offenses by the undeterred:

  • It is painful to subject others to punishment (“son, this is going to hurt me as much as it hurts you”); and
  • It is even more painful to vote for penalties that may be imposed on yourself in person.

The initially low penalties for causing death by dangerous driving is an example of the punishment dilemma. These penalties only slowly increased over several decades as societal attitudes hardened.


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