Some months ago I got a ticket for speeding. I opted to attend traffic school rather than have the infraction appear on my DMV record. Though I paid $231 and (largely) wasted two long, long nights at driving reeducation camp, I figure I came out ahead by keeping my auto insurance rates from soaring. That the trade-off worked to my benefit hardly means that it constitutes good public policy, however. In fact, I suspect that allowing bad drivers to hide one ticket every eighteen months by attending traffic school makes our roads less safe.
Put yourself in an auto insurance company’s shoes. You face lots of drivers who claim that they have received X number of traffic tickets in the last eighteen months. Thanks to the traffic school option, however, you know that a fair number of them in fact received X+1 tickets. You reasonably calculate that drivers with X+1 tickets almost certainly pose a greater risk to themselves and other people than drivers who got only X tickets.
As an insurance company, how do you separate the reckless goats from the safe sheep? You can’t, so you don’t. Instead, you simply hike your rates to compensate for the hidden risks. The best drivers thus end up paying more than, from an actuarial point of view, they should. Insurance rates thus do not adequately reward safe driving. Because incentives matter, we get less safe driving than we would in a world where you could not erase a ticket by attending traffic school.
It would perhaps be otherwise if traffic school really worked. As a professional educator who just suffered through traffic school, however, I’m willing to bet that it seldom substantially improves the driving habits of who attend it. Traffic school may affect a few students deeply, granted, and it probably affects all students at least a little bit. But does it erase unsafe driving practices as well as it erases tickets? I strongly doubt it.
Fortunately, traffic school was not a total loss for me. I did learn that while bicyclists must adhere to the motor code, skateboarders legally qualify as pedestrians. That means you can skateboard while intoxicated without getting a ticket—very useful information! Still more usefully, I used the 8 hours of traffic school to sketch out a home remodel and to write a song about defenses to a contract lawsuit (I’ll blog about the latter, later). And, of course, I had lots of time to reflect on the dubious public policy that put me in traffic school in the first place.