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.