The Trouble with Traffic School

Unlike Nicole Richie, I’ve never been to traffic school, that strange institution, found particularly in California, where errant drivers go as penance for DUIs (e.g., Richie) and other offenses and, rather bizarrely, to get points and convictions taken off your license (if only there was a “burglary school” for thieves who wanted to remove some blemishes from their criminal record). I don’t know if they’re anything like this skit, but the sense I’ve always gotten from visiting the websites (for “Improv Traffic School” or “Singles Traffic School”) and reading some of the articles , is that they’re light on actual education and filled with bored people merely trying to lower their insurance rates.

The question is: Are people really learning anything in these schools? Are they capable of learning something? In their excellent book Mistakes Were Made, psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson tell an interesting story about a traffic school: “As participants went around the room, reporting the violations that had brought them there, a miraculous coincidence occurred: Not one of them was responsible for breaking the law. They all had justifications for why they were speeding, had ignored a stop sign, ran a red light, or made an illegal U-turn.” People seemed unable to overcome the “cognitive dissonance” between their image of themselves as a good driver and the fact they had done something stupid or illegal.

A new study (via IIHS) by Michael Gebers of the California DMV, titled “A traffic safety evaluation of California’s traffic violator school citation dismissal policy,” updating earlier research, shows that traffic schools seem to have an unintended consequence: They raise a driver’s crash risk.

As IIHS notes, “despite their lower initial crash risk, traffic school drivers had a crash rate about 5 percent higher than that of convicted drivers during the year following the citation.” There are other problems: The policy of removing points and convictions from a driver’s record “reduces the ability to predict, or calibrate, the future accident expectancies” of those drivers by masking their true driving record. By lowering those drivers’ insurance rates, some drivers without convictions may actually end up paying more, subsidizing the would-be Nicole Richies of the world (some 1.2 million drivers’ citations are dismissed this way every year). Strangely, the DMV itself has called for the schools to be “abolished” or greatly restricted (and if “traffic schools” were to exist, shouldn’t the DMV itself be running them?)

The study reminded me of another, in The Lancet, by Donald Redelmeier, Robert Tibsharani, and Leonard Evans, which found that receiving a conviction for a traffic offense was something of a life-saver: “The risk of a fatal crash in the month after a conviction was about 35% lower than in a comparable month with no conviction for the same driver.” (the effect dropped after that).

Convictions, after all, are a form of feedback, however inexact, pointing out a driver’s mistakes, inducing caution. How does knowing these can be rinsed off of one’s record do anyone any good? I’d like to hear from any pro-traffic school people, or indeed stories from any traffic school attendees.

This entry was posted on Thursday, July 24th, 2008 at 11:52 am and is filed under Drivers, Traffic Culture, Traffic Psychology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

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Upcoming Talks

April 9, 2008.
California Office of Traffic Safety Summit
San Francisco, CA.

May 19, 2009
University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies
Bloomington, MN

June 23, 2009
Driving Assessment 2009
Big Sky, Montana

June 26, 2009
PRI World Congress
Rotterdam, The Netherlands

June 27, 2009
Day of Architecture
Utrecht, The Netherlands

July 13, 2009
Association of Transportation Safety Information Professionals (ATSIP)
Phoenix, AZ.

August 12-14
Texas Department of Transportation “Save a Life Summit”
San Antonio, Texas

September 2, 2009
Governors Highway Safety Association Annual Meeting
Savannah, Georgia

September 11, 2009
Oregon Transportation Summit
Portland, Oregon

October 8
Honda R&D Americas
Raymond, Ohio

October 10-11
INFORMS Roundtable
San Diego, CA

October 21, 2009
California State University-San Bernardino, Leonard Transportation Center
San Bernardino, CA

November 5
Southern New England Planning Association Planning Conference
Uncasville, Connecticut

January 6
Texas Transportation Forum
Austin, TX

January 19
Yale University
(with Donald Shoup; details to come)

Monday, February 22
Yale University School of Architecture
Eero Saarinen Lecture

Friday, March 19
University of Delaware
Delaware Center for Transportation

April 5-7
University of Utah
Salt Lake City
McMurrin Lectureship

April 19
International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (Organization Management Workshop)
Austin, Texas

Monday, April 26
Edmonton Traffic Safety Conference
Edmonton, Canada

Monday, June 7
Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals
Niagara Falls, Ontario

Wednesday, July 6
Fondo de Prevención Vial
Bogotá, Colombia

Tuesday, August 31
Royal Automobile Club
Perth, Australia

Wednesday, September 1
Australasian Road Safety Conference
Canberra, Australia

Wednesday, September 22

Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s
Traffic Incident Management Enhancement Program
Statewide Conference
Wisconsin Dells, WI

Wednesday, October 20
Rutgers University
Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation
Piscataway, NJ

Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Ontario Injury Prevention Resource Centre
Injury Prevention Forum

Monday, May 2
Idaho Public Driver Education Conference
Boise, Idaho

Tuesday, June 2, 2011
California Association of Cities
Costa Mesa, California

Sunday, August 21, 2011
American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Attitudes: Iniciativa Social de Audi
Madrid, Spain

April 16, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Gardens Theatre, QUT
Brisbane, Australia

April 17, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Centennial Plaza, Sydney
Sydney, Australia

April 19, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Melbourne Town Hall
Melbourne, Australia

January 30, 2013
University of Minnesota City Engineers Association Meeting
Minneapolis, MN

January 31, 2013
Metropolis and Mobile Life
School of Architecture, University of Toronto

February 22, 2013
ISL Engineering
Edmonton, Canada

March 1, 2013
Australian Road Summit
Melbourne, Australia

May 8, 2013
New York State Association of
Transportation Engineers
Rochester, NY

August 18, 2013 “Ingenuity” Conference
San Francisco, CA

September 26, 2013
TransComm 2013
(Meeting of American Association
of State Highway and Transportation
Officials’ Subcommittee on Transportation
Grand Rapids MI



July 2008

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