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Posted by on Jul 16, 2008 in At TMV | 12 comments

Stossel, Staddon, & Strahilevitz: eliminate stop signs, speed limits, & road rage


John Stossel reprises Friday’s 20/20 report on TownHall today. He says it’s time to get rid of stop signs:

Rolling through a stop sign in Michigan puts two points on your driving record. That hikes your car insurance premium. Fighting the ticket could cost even more. So to avoid the points and legal fees, most people plead guilty to a lesser offense: impeding traffic. The court sounds like an assembly line, ” … no points … $135 … ”

Last year, the town made half a million dollars from such fines. Some drivers told us it “seems like a moneymaking scam.

I don’t know if that’s true, but when some angry motorists complained to Heather Catallo, reporter for Detroit’s ABC affiliate, she took her cameras out to see if the cops themselves stopped at the stop signs. Most didn’t.

Her expose caused a ruckus in town. The mayor hired a new police commissioner, who told me the cops might have been on emergency calls. “They don’t necessarily have to have their lights and sirens on,” Commissioner William Dwyer said.

I told him the tape showed police cars rolling through stop signs on the way back to the police station.

ABC put cameras by stop signs in Warren, Mich., and in New York City and found that 72 percent of Michigan drivers and 82 percent of New Yorkers did not come to a complete stop. He points to John Staddon in this month’s Atlantic on why stop signs and speed limits endanger Americans:

For one thing, there’s the placement of the signs—off to the side of the road, often amid trees, parked cars, and other road signs; rarely right in front of the driver, where he or she should be looking.

Then there’s the sheer number of them. They sit at almost every intersection in most American neighborhoods. In some, every intersection seems to have a four-way stop. Stop signs are costly to drivers and bad for the environment: stop/start driving uses more gas, and vehicles pollute most when starting up from rest. More to the point, however, the overabundance of stop signs teaches drivers to be less observant of cross traffic and to exercise less judgment when driving—instead, they look for signs and drive according to what the signs tell them to do.

Stossel sticks to stop signs but Staddon moves on to “a more severe safety hazard” the speed limit:

A particularly vexing aspect of the U.S. policy is that speed limits seem to be enforced more when speeding is safe. As a colleague once pointed out, “An empty highway on a sunny day? You’re dead meat!” A more systematic effort to train drivers to ignore road conditions can hardly be imagined. By training drivers to drive according to the signs rather than their judgment in great conditions, the American system also subtly encourages them to rely on the signs rather than judgment in poor conditions, when merely following the signs would be dangerous.

In this Staddon is joined by University of Chicago Law Professor Lior Strahilevitz who took up the topic of traffic law a couple years ago and has found empirical studies documenting that when municipalities have budget woes, traffic fine collections increase. He has not found that when traffic safety measures are implemented fines plummet.

Staddon advocates virtually no traffic signs — any minimal instruction given can be painted on the road itself. He might like the scheme Strahilevitz has concocted and presented in his fascinating paper, “How’s My Driving?” for Everyone (and Everything?):

A few weeks ago, I was driving to the airport in Seattle. Traffic was flowing reasonably well on the freeway. Just two car lengths ahead of me, a driver in a pickup truck began swerving violently between the two leftmost lanes, nearly colliding with a minivan. The minivan blared its horns and the pickup driver proceeded to drive like a maniac for the next half mile or so, violently jerking his car from lane to lane, swerving unpredictably across multiple lanes, and forcing numerous drivers to brake suddenly and become agitated during an otherwise uneventful morning commute. The pickup driver then swerved for the exit ramp, and abruptly left the freeway.

This scenario — atrocious driving on the freeway by an anonymous motorist, observed by dozens of bystanders, yet sanctioned in no meaningful way — plays out thousands of times daily on American freeways. The police can’t be everywhere, we rarely know the people driving near us on the freeways, and this combination of rare surveillance and practical driver anonymity contributes substantially to aggressive driving. Largely as a result, vehicular collisions are the leading killer of Americans aged 15 to 29. I have just posted a brand new paper on SSRN (free download available here), that shows how the law can take much better advantage of the information that you and me obtain about our fellow motorists every day on the roads.

Existing programs reduce accidents between 20 and 53 percent. I was skeptical when I heard it described, but completely sold when I listened to his Chicago’s Best Ideas talk last January:

Before buying a product from an eBay seller, a prospective buyer is likely to examine the seller’s feedback score and peruse the comments of others who previously dealt with that merchant. A strong feedback score enables merchants to fetch more money for their products, and the fear of negative feedback helps keep the overwhelming majority of eBay sellers on their best behavior. Imagine if every driver on the roads had a similar sort of feedback score and these scores were made available to insurance companies. Would aggressive and unsafe behavior on our roadways be reduced? Could drivers and pedestrians do a better job of keeping the roadways safe than the police? Would the feedback be reliable enough? Yes, Yes, and Yes, says Professor Strahilevitz, who will elaborate on this idea and explore applications beyond the roadways.

Here a follow-up post from Strahilevitz with some interesting discussion of extending reputation and feedback systems beyond driving to bring big urban areas some small town qualities.