Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Dummies for Traffic School

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.


Glen Whitman said...

Based on personal experience (from many years ago), I'm inclined to agree that traffic school is useless. But here's some evidence to the contrary: my insurance company offers a discount for people who take a safe-driving course, regardless of whether they've gotten a ticket or not. I could reduce my premiums by about $100/year by taking an online course (which I've just been too lazy or busy to take). My insurance company has a profit incentive not to offer this price differential unless it actually corresponds to an actuarial risk differential.

Another possibility, though, is that my insurance company uses the course to effect a kind of price discrimination. The course itself doesn't affect your driving, but taking it identifies you as a more price-sensitive customer.

Anonymous said...

ugh, the blogger comments keep timing-out.

Tom, I think traffic school doesn't make you a safe driver, but the threat of hiking up your insurance rate does. Last year I got two speeding tickets within the same month. It's always at some remote highway; cops just wait around to find one to issue a ticket to. The first was when i was driving to Mammoth and the other driving up from Seattle to Vancouver. It's just something about driving alone that makes me do over 90mph. But who doesn't drive that fast on these long boring highways? Anyway, I was able to do online traffic school for both of these which allowed me to drop marks, but if I got a third one, my insurance rate was DEFINITELY going to go up a lot. Apparenlty, i wasn't supposed to get another speeding ticket for one year or else I'd be screwed. You bet that REALLY made me drive carefully for about a year. And usually I get a little impatient on the road driving to work.

By the way, why didn't you just do the online traffic school option? It's waaay shorter; it takes about a few hours instead of days, and you can do it at work.


Anonymous said...

oh and in my defense, (not that anybody cares) I don't normally get this many speeding tickets even though I'm guilty of speeding sometimes. Actually I never do. But now I'm always looking at my mirrors checking for cops.


Megan Squire Conklin said...

I went to traffic school twice while living in Florida. I chose the "Comedy Traffic School" which was supposed to be more fun than the regular one. It mostly consisted of the comedian-cum-traffic-educator going around the room and asking everyone how much their tickets were, and then talking about how you could have rented a helicopter or a limo to take you to your destination for that same amount of money. It was really more like humiliation traffic school. Good times, good times.

Anonymous said...

As far as I know, in most states the government sets the insurance rate increases for speeding tickets. This is just a special interest benefit for the insurers. It does not imply a genuine actuarial assessment of your increased risk. Most actuaries can work out, as easily as you can, that doing 80mph on the open highway does not make you a significantly higher risk driver. Traffic school is, of course, yet another scam enforced by the states.

Tom W. Bell said...

JB: Granted that an element of uncertainty surrounds the issuance of *any* ticket, I am hard-pressed to believe that the process is so random that it offers no useful information about driving habits. To the contrary, I suspect that a ticket tends to *under*represent the amount of unsafe driving that the ticket recipient does. You have to speed often and outrageously, by and large, to earn a ticket for it.

Glen: I've wondered about that, too. I concluded, however, that several factors serve to distinguish the insurance company's practice in the case you describe from the traffic school scenario I've critiqued. Most notably, the class content probably varies. The insurance company class probably focuses on reducing risks of injury, whereas the state-mandated school includes a great deal of "follow the rule because we say so!" stuff. The former information, being more directly related to self-interest, is likely to have a larger impact. Also, note that merely making a class voluntary should help students to absorb the information. Another distinction: People who go out looking for ways to become better drivers probably already *are* better drivers.

SK: Orange County remains, alas, one of the few places where you cannot do an online school.

Megan: That sounds like my own, admittedly unfunny class. Except that my class did offer moments of levity, as when I and some other troublemakers stirred things up.

Gavin: Huh. I'd never heard that. It would surprise me if the state strictly controlled step-wise inscreases in insurance, but I cannot say it's impossible. I can say that there seems to be a great deal of price competition for auto insurance, however, and that it would prove strange if that competition took place only in base rates (rather than in base rates and changes reflecting driving behavior). But, hey, a lot about the vehicle laws fails to make much sense.

Anonymous said...

Vehicle insurance in most states is mandatory. Everything about it, is controlled in a manner that makes the Soviet Union look libertarian. Insurers do have some flexibility on price but not much. The 'step' system for 'safe' drivers is regulated by law. Insurers cannot choose to waive any increase if they think 80mph on a highway is actually quite safe. Predictably, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Hawaii are the worst. Many insurers just don't bother to write policies in those states, to the detriment of the consumer choice supposedly ensured by the law.

Anonymous said...

I don't necessarily see a conflict between requiring insurance and liberty. Since nearly everyone over 16 drives, and no one actually thinks they're going to get into an accident which is *their* fault, the ability to pay potential damages is far below their actual potential damages (e.g. a '89 Astro could easily total a new Porsche despite the factor of 50 difference in price). Without requiring insurance, owning a high-end (or even a non-POS) car would be a serious liability, one whose costs are born not by those responsible for damages. Your freedom to not have insurance infringes (on average) on others' freedom to own cars.