Traffic deaths are on the rise. Not since the 1940s have Americans faced the same risks when crossing streets, in part because drivers have become increasingly aggressive. This is true both nationally, where the number of pedestrians and bicyclists killed in traffic crashes increased by 2% and 8%, respectively, in the first half of 2022, and here in Southern California.
In Los Angeles, more people were killed in traffic collisions last year than any other year in the past two decades. Los Angeles adopted a Vision Zero program in 2015, intended to eliminate traffic deaths, but the city’s efforts appear to have had little effect.
Our approach to traffic safety, since the United States adopted it a century ago, remains largely unchanged, even as the number, size, and speed of vehicles have increased dramatically. For the most part, we place a great deal of trust in drivers. We use license requirements to try to educate new drivers and filter out bad ones. But once the drivers are on the road, we basically cross our fingers and hope they’re responsible. If they aren’t, the repercussions are few: A dark joke among traffic safety advocates is that the easiest way to get away with it is to run over someone at a crosswalk. Most people who break traffic laws are not caught, and when they are, the punishments are rarely severe.
When they are severe, it is not clear if they work or are fair. A rich person can ignore a large fine, but it would cripple a low-income person financially. Or take driver’s license suspensions: Other than jail time, taking someone’s license away is one of the harshest punishments out there. But it doesn’t work, partly because, in a country where driving is essential, most people will still drive without one. Some of the biggest offenders in the national spike in traffic fatalities were people driving without a valid license.
Relative to other regulations, such as installing speed limiters on cars or impounding vehicles, driver’s license suspension does not slow down the car. It is also an obstacle that we impose in a strange way. The state will automatically revoke a license if people fail to pay child support or miss their traffic court date, but only sporadically for reckless driving. License penalties end up affecting a small group of dangerous drivers, those that the police choose to stop and cite.
However, increasing license suspensions will not solve our crisis. The punishments that really change behavior are those that are quick and sure, rather than harsh. Imagine that you are in a hurry, approaching a traffic light that is already yellow. Will you pass the red? You are less likely to do so if your passenger told you, as he was about to speed off, that the fine for doing so was $1,000. But you would be more unlikely to do so if a police car was right behind you. The probability of being caught matters. The same goes for the speed of the consequence.
A license suspension works poorly on both counts. For the most part, the only way a driver can be punished for running a red light or speeding is if a police officer witnesses it and decides to stop and cite the driver.
We can’t put officers at every dangerous intersection. But we can put cameras on each one. Speed cameras and red light cameras are a sure way to reduce speeding and traffic collisions, because the probability of getting caught is close to 100%. Drivers are less motivated by the possibility of high tickets than by the high probability of a ticket. If a driver thinks he’s going to get a ticket, the ticket doesn’t need to be that high to encourage better driving.
To address the sudden and serious dangers of driving, we stick with the status quo license policies that don’t work, and we circumvent the ones that do. Instead of just waiting for individual restraint and compliance with the rules, we should encourage them by adding speed cameras to busy streets and intersections. We can slow drivers down by narrowing the streets and limiting the size and speed of our cars. But more immediately, we should effectively punish negligent drivers to prevent them from driving dangerously in the future.
Every traffic collision is an unnecessary tragedy. We can and must do the right thing: enforce traffic laws fairly and unequivocally.
Miriam Pinski studies fair transportation policy and is a research analyst at the Center for Shared Mobility.