Some speeders seem to be slow learners

GETTING THERE

March 19, 2007|By MICHAEL DRESSER

Little did we know it, but Maryland drivers have been under scrutiny. Saranath Lawpoolsri and Jingyi Li have been observing us, and what they've found out about our driving isn't very flattering.

It turns out that we're a rather thickheaded lot. You can give us speeding citations and we just go out and earn more - as if they were merit badges.

That's what Lawpoolsri and Li concluded after conducting a study of how Maryland drivers respond to the most basic form of traffic law enforcement. Far from being chastened by a speeding citation, Maryland drivers who were so honored had more than twice the risk of other drivers of receiving yet another speeding ticket during the subsequent 12 months.

Lawpoolsri and Li are particularly qualified to observe the behavior of Maryland drivers in a detached and scientific manner. Lawpoolsri, 27, is a Thai woman. Li, 30, is a Chinese man. Both are physicians doing graduate work at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore.

The paper they recently completed was the result of an epidemiological study conducted under the supervision of Dr. Elisa R. Braver of the medical school as part of a doctoral program. (It seems some folks just can't be satisfied with just an M.D. degree.)

Using a database of court records, they compared 15,814 Marylanders who received a speeding ticket in May 2002 with 3.7 million who didn't and tracked their rates of receiving speeding tickets and drunken-driving charges during the follow-up period. Then they sliced and diced the data by gender and age.

Here are some findings:

Female drivers who received tickets were significantly more likely to get repeat tickets than their lead-footed male counterparts. Males caught once were twice as likely to repeat. But lead-footed women had 2.5 times the risk of a repeat citation.

Teenage drivers appeared to be more responsive to the sanction of a ticket than their older counterparts. The data show that ticketed teens from May 2002 were only slightly more likely (1.25 to 1) to get new tickets than those who avoided speeding citations. The researchers noted that these numbers could be distorted by an increased propensity of teens to make life changes that take them out of state - to college or the military. Still, traffic cops should be encouraged that they might actually be getting through to somebody.

Those who earned a speeding ticket during the test month were more than twice as likely as nonticketed drivers to be charged with driving under the influence or while intoxicated during the follow-up year. Some of my speed-freak friends will undoubtedly conclude that tickets drive people to drink and should be abolished.

The study also took a look at how various legal consequences of receiving a ticket affected future speeding offenses. The results are a bit of a surprise.

Drivers who received no legal consequences from their initial tickets - that is, they beat the rap, one way or another - and those who were punished showed no difference in getting subsequent tickets.

In fact, the best performance in terms of avoiding future tickets came among drivers who received a fine and probation before judgment - sparing points on their driving records. Women appeared to be especially likely to slow down after a PBJ. Perhaps sensing their greater capacity to learn, judges were more likely to hand out PBJs to women (34 percent of cases) than men (26 percent).

"Receiving fines and points had no significant impact on the risk of repeat citations, although this was the most severe penalty," the report said.

Of course, the effectiveness of PBJs might be a result of traffic court judges handing them out to the right people. Or, the authors speculate, the experience of appearing in traffic court - generally the way to get a PBJ - might have an enlightening influence on some drivers.

"PBJ might be more effective than other legal penalties because of the personal contact with a judge, who warns the driver that points will be reinstated if he or she is caught speeding again within 6 months to a year," the authors write.

Like most research, the study doesn't "prove" much in itself but suggests avenues for - you guessed it - more research. But from a public policy standpoint, it raises interesting questions:

If PBJs are effective, and young people are more responsive to the lesson of tickets than their elders, would it make sense to make all traffic tickets "must appear" offenses for those with probationary licenses?

If drivers who receive tickets aren't deterred from future speeding, is it because the penalties are not sufficiently severe?

Or, with older drivers who speed more likely to become repeat violators, are the fines easier to absorb with greater age and income? Should fines escalate with each subsequent violation?

Lawpoolsri and Li think increased enforcement might be more important than the severity of penalties.

"People perceive that speed enforcement is sporadic and can be predicted," Lawpoolsri said.

Both say they believe their research can have relevance in their home countries. Lawpoolsri, whose fellow Thais are not shy about mashing the gas pedal on their high-quality roads outside Bangkok, wants to do similar research in her native land. Li said congestion and road conditions now prevent most Chinese from going too fast, but he added he doesn't expect that to last.

"We do follow trends in America," he said.

Mobile texting

One trend that appears to be growing is that of driving while sending and receiving text messages. If you engage in such multitasking - or have experience with those who do - feel free to send an e-mail to:

gettingthere@baltsun.com

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