Varied penalty types and levels for speeding and the various traffic offenses included under speeding and aggressive driving are part of each State’s overall driver control system. Penalties typically are low for first offenses that do not produce serious crashes and include small fines and perhaps demerit points assessed against the driver’s license. When violations cause a crash producing serious injury or death, the offense may carry criminal charges and sanctions may be more severe.
States use the demerit point system in an attempt to track and deter drivers from committing repeated traffic offenses. As drivers accumulate demerit points, States use various actions and penalties such as warning letters, educational brochures, group counseling meetings, individual counseling, administrative hearings, and driver’s license suspension or revocation (Masten & Peck, 2004). The type and level of penalties for speeding and aggressive driving offenses should be considered within the context of a State’s overall driver control and problem driver remediation system.
All States have an existing system of penalties for traffic offenses. These systems include more severe penalties for significant individual offenses, such as those producing serious injury or death, and for repeat offenses. Repeated offenses are often determined through a review of accumulated driver’s license demerit points.
Internationally, the introduction of penalty point systems, and increases in penalties for speeding, have been associated with safety benefits and general deterrence of speeding. However, there may be limits to the efficacy of increasing punishment for the worst offenders, as the penalty points systems may not completely alter speeding behaviors in those who are the worst offenders.
The greatest effect of increasing fixed penalties seems to apply only to locations with a high level of enforcement (e.g., fixed speed cameras) or the automatic application of penalties.
Evaluations of penalty point systems in European and Middle Eastern countries suggest that the introduction of penalty points, including for speeding, have significantly reduced road traffic injuries (Akhtar & Ziyab, 2013). In Norway, increasing fixed penalties for speeding showed a weak tendency for speeding violations to decrease near camera-enforced sites over time (Elvik & Christensen, 2007) but there was no generalized safety effect of increased penalties over the road system at large. The researchers thought this was likely due to the overall low risk of detection of speeding across the network. Also, European safety researchers suggest that the effect of demerit points and increasing penalties may have decreased over time (Goldenbeld et al., 2013). Maintaining consistent enforcement is part of the challenge. Introduction of a penalty point system in Spain that came into force in 2006, seems to have had an enduring effect on safety, perhaps due to increasing support of traffic enforcement and other safety measures (Izquierdo et al., 2011).
Three Canadian provinces passed legislation from 2007 to 2010 that imposed severe sanctions, including immediate license suspension and vehicle impoundment for speeding by high margins (Gargoum & El-Basyouny, 2018). In British Columbia drivers were subject to mandatory license suspension of 3, 7, or 30 days and vehicle impoundment from 3 to 30 days. In Ontario, drivers were subject to an instant 7-day license suspension and vehicle impoundment, and if convicted large fines, demerit points, and possible imprisonment. In Quebec drivers were subject to a 7-day suspension, double-speed fine, and double demerit points, with repeat offenders being subject to vehicle impoundment for 30-days accompanying a 30-day license suspension. Automatic license suspensions and vehicle impoundments were not part of the penalties before the new legislation. A statistical evaluation estimated the impact on crashes in the provinces associated with the programs, as opposed to specific deterrence effects on drivers penalized under these laws. The programs were associated with statistically significant drops in fatal collisions in Ontario and British Columbia, and in injury crashes in Quebec. Non-statistically significant decreases in injury crashes also occurred in Ontario and Quebec, while British Columbia observed a statistically significant increase in injury crashes. However, the researchers noted that a law affecting impaired driving that had been associated with a drop in injury collisions was repealed during the period after the excessive speeding laws went into effect. Overall, laws increasing the severity of penalties for excessive speeding were associated with reduced fatalities and trauma in these Canadian provinces, suggesting a generalized deterrent effect and safety benefits (Gargoum & El-Basyouny, 2018).
In Victoria, Australia, tightened enforcement tolerances, enhancements to automated and other enforcement, publicity, combined with penalty restructuring (more penalty levels and higher penalties for each) were associated with lower crashes (D’Elia et al., 2007).
The effects of increasing penalties on violators and subsequent crashes are less clear. Again, the effects may relate to implementation as well as level of enforcement (risk of being caught). Automatic penalties or penalties administered by licensing agencies may be more than those that are processed through the courts (Masten & Peck, 2004).
Masten and Peck (2004) conducted a meta-analysis of prior studies and examined deterrence of future violations and effects on subsequent crashes of different driver improvement and driver control actions for violators. The actions ranged from simple warning letters and brochures to individual meetings, driving courses, group meetings, and license suspensions or revocations. License suspension was the most effective by far, likely due to decreased driving exposure. In addition, court-mandated consequences were not associated with subsequent reductions in crashes by drivers, whereas those administered by licensing agencies were associated with reductions in subsequent violations and crashes. Sanctions such as diverting violators to driving courses or home study programs that included a violation dismissal policy were found to result in a net increase in crashes. Finally, it is uncertain whether the effects from the study are generalizable to all States and to contemporary times, as a large proportion of the included studies were from California (and other western States), and all the studies dated from the 1970s to 1990s (Masten & Peck, 2004). Recent literature searches did not uncover similar studies.
More recently, Australian researchers examined the time to next violation and various other metrics for drivers caught speeding before and after a Queensland law went into effect increasing penalties for speeding (Watson et al., 2015). The penalties included increased monetary fines for all levels and imposed automatic license suspension and eight demerit points for the highest offense category. These offenders were grouped into different categories based on prior offenses (none within the previous 5 years of the “index’ offense, prior mid-range offenses, and two or more high prior speeding offenses). There was a significant reduction in the proportion of drivers who re-offended compared to the cohort who offended before the law went into effect. The decreases were significant for the “first” offense group and the mid-range offense group, but not statistically significant for the high-range offenders. Fewer speeding offenses were also committed by the cohort who offended after the law change, and these reductions were significant for all three ranges of offenders (low, medium, and high).
Researchers in Maryland found that various legal consequences for speeding had little impact on future citations for individual drivers (Lawpoolsri et al., 2007). Drivers who received (any) legal consequences had the same likelihood of receiving another speeding citation as drivers who escaped legal consequences. Only fines coupled with probation before judgment (PBJ) was associated with a reduced risk of receiving a subsequent speeding ticket, supporting the idea that the threat of loss of license may have some impact. A follow-on longitudinal study found that drivers who opted for court appearance to contest their speeding citations were more likely to be involved in future crashes and receive future speeding citations than drivers who accepted a guilty verdict and paid fines by mail (Li et al., 2011).
Like the results from Maryland, a U.K. study that examined survey and conviction data found that the immediate threat of being disqualified from driving deterred those with points on their license from further speeding. However, for a subset of drivers, the threat of this sanction did not appear to affect their choice to engage in speeding behavior (Corbett et al., 2008). A study of the effects of Norway’s penalty point system found an inverted U-shaped relationship between accumulating points for speeding and other traffic effects and follow-on violations within one year (Sagberg & Ingebrigtsen, 2018). That is, those who had 0 points were least likely to accumulate additional points, but those with prior points were increasingly likely to accumulate more points up to the threat of loss of license for the next infraction. These results suggest that there may be both general and individual deterrent effects of Norway’s system, although specific deterrence has limits. Crash effects were not investigated.
Evidence from the United States and international studies suggest that penalty point systems and increasing consequences for increasing number of degree of violations may improve deterrence among the general population of drivers, if backed up with sufficient enforcement, and if penalties are automatically applied. However, increasing punishment and penalties for higher speed and repeat violators may not have the intended deterrent effects on these types of violators and their subsequent crash involvement, unless suspensions are carried out.
Costs vary by penalty type and administrator (i.e., the courts versus licensing and vehicle agencies). For example, warning letters are very inexpensive once a record system has been established to identify drivers who should receive letters. Individual counseling and administrative hearings may require substantial staff time. Some costs may be recovered through offender fees.
- Effectiveness of penalties is associated with perceived risk of getting caught: Changes in speeding and aggressive driving sanctions by themselves cannot reduce speeding and aggressive driving. To be effective, sanctions must be well known to violators, and they must perceive a high probability of being caught and having penalties imposed (Preusser et al., 2008; Shinar, 2007). The certainty of punishment may be more important than the level of penalty (Li et al., 2011; Shinar, 2007).
- Unintended consequences: The threat of increasing court-administered penalties may overload courts and prosecutors, resulting in delays, plea agreements, and inconsistent outcomes. These situations may in turn affect the perceived legitimacy of speed limit enforcement and the belief that speeding is a safety issue (Neuman et al., 2009). Penalties should also be perceived as fair by those charged with enforcing and upholding sanctions as well as the public. Law enforcement officers in some States expressed reluctance to cite drivers when they themselves perceive increased penalties to be overly punitive or more about raising funds than safety (Byrne et al., 2021). Courts officials may similarly be concerned with these issues and with equity and violators’ financial well-being since increasing penalties may be more punitive to some drivers and result in other consequences due to inability to pay.
- Adjudication may have negative feedback on enforcement: Some 37% of 568 law enforcement officers surveyed (from municipal, sheriff’s and Statewide agencies in 4 States) felt that local prosecutors and judges do not support their traffic safety enforcement efforts, although most thought that traffic enforcement was important to safety (Otto et al., 2019). Thirty-five percent went as far as saying that traffic safety enforcement was a waste of time because prosecutors and judges would not follow through. There is some evidence to support their beliefs. A news investigation in North Carolina found nearly 92% of speeders going 20+ mph over the limit received pleas in the courts that allowed them to escape full penalties (Alexander & Stradling, 2021a). The analysis found that about 16,000 drivers were charged with speeding more than 20 mph over the limit at least three times from 2016 to 2020. Over the 5 years, 75 drivers who had charges reduced or dismissed more than once were later involved in fatal crashes (Alexander & Stradling, 2021b). More than 12,000 improper equipment pleas were granted over the 5 years to people who were driving more than 25 mph over the limit, despite earlier legislation that was intended to close such loopholes; some drivers received such deals more than once. Reasons given were that the courts are understaffed, underfunded, and overwhelmed with traffic and other court cases (Alexander & Stradling, 2021b, Alexander, 2021). Attempts to close these loopholes through legislation have also proven insufficient (Alexander & Stradling, 2021b).
- Expanding use of administrative sanctions: Given the effectiveness and greater reliability of administrative sanctions, it may be possible to make better use of administrative/civil penalties as used in many speed safety camera programs, to create a system that induces most drivers to willingly comply with speed limits, and reserves the need for more serious driver interventions (that may involve other actions than punishment) for those most unwilling to comply with society’s rules and expectations. Furthermore, increasing concerns about court outcomes and equity suggest that while penalties are part of the system of laws intended to deter both the general population of drivers from speeding, and to reduce repeated violations by specific drivers, States should pay strong attention to the system of enforcement and adjudication and feedback loops over time to understand why these systems may not be working as intended.
- Repeat and serious offenders: The threat of punishment is only effective if it deters people from further violations, and as discussed previously, some drivers may not want to change their behavior while others may be unable to control their own behavior. These people may require more in-depth social/behavioral interventions. Recommended methods to reach them include:
- Improve traffic record systems – This strategy is recommended to better identify repeat offenders and to allow patrol officers to immediately access a driver’s complete driving record (Neuman, Pfefer, Slack, Hardy, & Waller, 2003). No studies have been identified, as yet, of the effects of improved record systems on repeat offenders. Costs and implementation time will vary.
- Provide alternate modes of transportation, electronic monitoring, enforced restrictions or limits on mobility through license plate “striping” – These recommendations address unlicensed drivers, including those who have already received the maximum penalties but continue to drive (Neuman, Pfefer, Slack, Hardy, & Waller, 2003).
- Immediate license suspension or revocation – One study cited in this section suggests that strong penalties, immediately and automatically applied, can be effective at improving safety in a jurisdiction. Automatic imposition of penalties was a component of the increased penalty systems estimated to reduce fatal and injury crashes in one or more Canadian provinces (Gargoum & El-Basyouny, 2018).
- Require mandatory ISA (vehicle-based speed control) systems – Requiring mandatory systems that enforce the limit, and cannot be turned off by operators, to be installed on violators’ vehicles could be an option for repeat and flagrant offenders. Using mandatory ISA for higher risk groups (younger drivers, professional drivers, drivers convicted of serious speeding offenses) was deemed a very cost-effective use of ISA (Vaa et al., 2014), but no evaluations of this measure are known. See the Intelligent Speed Assistance section for more information.
- Intense interventions with recidivist, or immature speeders –As discussed by researchers from the Dutch National Road Safety Institute (SWOV), punishment is a limited means to encourage people to the desired behaviors. For punishment to have an optimal effect, people’s motivations and the potential for changing their behavior must be accounted for (Goldenbeld et al., 2013). A few pilot studies have noted some success in helping drivers achieve better control. As examples, a group in Estonia pilot tested an intervention with promising results (Paaver et al., 2013). The intervention was provided by trained psychologists and focused on teaching driving students about impulsive personality and information processing styles, different types of impulsiveness, how to recognize such tendencies in oneself, and potential situational triggers that may induce people to behave impulsively and take risks. The test group had half as many speeding violations over a year following the intervention as a control group of students from the same driving schools. Another effort in the United Kingdom developed and trialed an intensive personal intervention to target attitudes, skills, and knowledge relating to crash risk among young men with several social and behavioral risk factors and high levels of road traffic collisions (Tapp et al., 2013). The intervention sought to teach “smoothness and control.” The study measured positive and long-lasting impacts among the men who completed the program. One of the challenges, however, was achieving recruitment and completion among this cohort. A small study tested a work-related driver behavior modification program using feedback and goal setting and social-norming branding (Newnam et al., 2014). This trial showed at least short-term improvement in drivers’ compliance with speed limits. These and other research efforts may ultimately lead to changes in education, training, and enforcement interventions that will have more beneficial effects on safety than most driver interventions to date. Finally, an evaluation of a diversionary training course comes from the U.K. The National Speed Awareness Course is an optional short training course provided by police departments (Ipsos MORI et al., 2018). Although speeders can take this course as an alternative to paying penalties for low-level speeding infractions, it is not eligible to those with prior offenses within 3 years, and convictions are not expunged from the driving record. The objective of the course is to convince participants to comply with speed limits by fostering lasting changes in driver attitudes and behaviors towards speeding. The course does this by directly challenging driver existing attitudes, offering insight, awareness and understanding about their speed choices, and importantly, educating them on how they can change their behavior. The effectiveness of the training course was evaluated by comparing crash records for drivers that participated in the course with matched drivers cited for similar levels of speeding, but who did not take the course, or were not offered the course. The evaluation findings indicated that drivers who took the course were significantly less likely to reoffend over the 3-year evaluation period, with the difference diminishing but remaining significant after 6 months.