3.1 Penalty Types and Levels
Overall Effectiveness Concerns: This countermeasure’s effectiveness has been examined in several research studies. The balance of the evidence suggests that these types of countermeasures are ineffective in the long term.
Penalty types and levels for speeding and the traffic offenses included under 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 casualties and include small fines and perhaps a few 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. As discussed in the Speeding and Speed Management chapter, Section 1.2, NHTSA’s Aggressive Driving Symposium and NCHRP’s Aggressive Driving Guide recommend enhanced penalties for repeat aggressive driving offenders and felony charges for offenses resulting in serious injury or death (Neuman, Pfefer, Slack, Hardy, Raub, et al., 2003, Strategy A3; NHTSA, 2001a).
States use the demerit point system in an attempt to prevent drivers from committing repeated traffic offenses. As drivers accumulate demerit points, States use 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). Penalty levels and types for speeding and aggressive driving offenses should be considered in the context of a State’s overall driver control and problem driver remediation system.
Use: Each State has a system of penalties for traffic offenses. Each system includes more severe penalties for significant individual offenses, such as those producing serious injury or death, and for repeated offenses, often determined through accumulated driver’s license demerit points.
Effectiveness: Generally, for penalties to be effective, perceived risk of getting caught must be high. Evidence is mixed about effectiveness of varying severity of penalties. Masten and Peck (2004) reviewed the effectiveness evidence for different driver improvement and driver control actions, including penalty levels and types, from 35 high-quality studies of 106 individual actions and penalties. They found that, taken together, all actions and penalties reduced subsequent crashes by 6% and violations by 8%. Even simple warning letters had some effect on both violations and crashes. The effect increased as the “obtrusiveness” of the action increased, with license suspension or revocation the most effective by far. The authors noted that the threat of license suspension probably is responsible for the effectiveness of the weaker actions such as warning letters. Educational brochures by themselves had no effect. However, administrative penalties imposed by the driver licensing agency were more effective than penalties imposed by the courts.
Elvik and Christensen (2007) reported there was a weak tendency for speeding violations in Norway to decrease near camera-enforced sites in response to increasing fixed penalties over time. However, there was no general effect of increasing fixed penalties over the road system at large. The researchers thought this was likely due to the overall low risk of detection.
Evaluations of the introduction of penalty point systems in European and Middle-Eastern countries, including Kuwait in 2006, suggest that the introduction of penalty points, including for speeding, have significantly reduced road traffic injuries (Akhtar & Ziyab, 2014). Although the time series analysis may not have been able to control for all confounders, including driver education weeks and the volume of citations, the results of this and other studies suggest that introduction of a penalty system can be an effective safety measure, in conjunction with enforcement and education. However, the long-term effects of penalty systems are somewhat uncertain and likely depend on how they continue to be implemented.
For example, research in Maryland found that legal consequences for speeding had little impact on future citations for individual drivers (Lawpoolsri et al., 2007). Drivers who received legal consequences had the same likelihood of receiving another speeding citation as drivers who escaped legal consequences. Only fines coupled with probation before judgment was associated with a reduced risk of receiving a subsequent speeding ticket. A follow-on longitudinal study found that the 54% of cited 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). In addition, whether drivers who opted for court appearance received guilty or not-guilty verdicts, or had charges dismissed had little effect on deterrence of future speeding or prevention of crashes, even controlling for prior driver histories and other potential confounders. Only suspended types of prosecutions (e.g., probation before judgment or other suspension) were associated with somewhat decreased risk of speeding recidivism and future crashes, but a still higher risk compared to those who paid fines by mail. The two types of suspended prosecutions associated with somewhat reduced future speeding and crash risk both provide some incentive to avoid additional citations that would result in a reinstatement of charges and potential loss of license. Also, many drivers receiving suspended judgments may have had reduced exposure owing to having prior alcohol traffic violations and license restriction/suspension.
Similar to the results from Maryland, a British 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 speed (Corbett et al., 2008).
Most evidence suggests there is at least a subset of drivers for whom sanctions and increasing penalties do not seem to have the desired deterrent effect. Many studies and NHTSA statistics verify the prevalence of young, male driver involvement in speeding crashes. A review of the literature by Fuller et al. (2008) suggests that young males may simply be immature, with incomplete development of self-knowledge, self-control, social responsibility, and independence of judgment. Drivers with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may be particularly at risk because of self-control challenges. In addition, there is evidence of socially deviant speeders for whom speeding is associated with other forms of risk-taking. These groups are distinguished from those who speed unintentionally due to failure to perceive risks and adjust accordingly.
Repeat offenders: Repeat speeding and aggressive driving offenders may be especially difficult to deter. Recommended methods to address these offenders include:
- Enhanced penalties, including increased driver’s license points, immediate license suspension or revocation, higher fines, and jail or probation, but research described in this section makes clear that the availability of such penalties alone is unlikely to lead to individual deterrence of speeding. See the Speeding and Speed Management chapter, Sections 1.2 and 3.1, for more information. The certainty of punishment may be more important than the level of penalty (Li et al., 2011; Shinar, 2007). Furthermore, courts may be reluctant to impose the most serious penalties, such as license suspension, for speeding violations, or simply unable to effectively prosecute speeders as charged.
- Improved traffic record systems, 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; NHTSA, 2001a). There are no studies of the effects of improved record systems on repeat offenders. Costs and implementation time will vary.
- Providing alternate modes of transportation, electronic monitoring, enforced restrictions or limits on mobility through license plate “striping” or vehicle impoundment are other recommendations to address unlicensed drivers, including those who have already received the maximum penalties but continue to drive (Neuman, Pfefer, Slack, Hardy, & Waller, 2003).
In the future, there may be potential to use ISA (vehicle-based speed monitoring and warning or control of speed) systems for repeat offenders. A Maryland pilot study assessed the effects of an ISA warning type system on speeding behavior among 78 volunteer drivers who had at least three speeding violations in the prior 3 years (De Leonardis et al., 2014). Both verbal and red LED light alerts were provided in real time to the drivers when their speed exceeded the speed limit on a given road by more than 8 mph. Subjects’ speeding behavior was monitored for 2 weeks prior to the systems being activated, for 4 weeks with the warning systems activated, and for a 2-week follow-up period with the alert systems deactivated. Results were promising. Drivers sped more than 8 mph over the limit a small, but significantly lower proportion of the distance driven during the alerting phase (0.43) compared to the baseline phase (0.45). Proportion of speeding also remained somewhat lower (0.44) during the two-week follow-up period when the systems were turned off except among the more habitual speeders, who immediately resumed their normal speeds. However, participants were very concerned about providing driving speed data to insurance or licensing agencies. They anticipated negative consequences, including the potential for revocation of their driver licenses and increased insurance premiums. Such concerns would need to be addressed to encourage drivers to voluntarily use such a system to help control their speed (De Leonardis et al., 2014). In general, the systems seemed to be well accepted by a majority of the drivers, except for the concerns mentioned. Two types of ISA – speed alerting and speed-controlling – were also evaluated among a group of serious speeders in the Netherlands (van der Pas et al., 2014). While the devices were active, there was much less speeding, but once inactivated, levels of speeding quickly rebounded to normal levels.
Costs: Costs vary by penalty type. 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.
Time to implement: Most changes in penalty levels can be implemented quickly in a State’s overall driver improvement system.
- Public acceptance, enforcement, and publicity: 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 have a high probability of being imposed (Preusser et al., 2008). Traffic laws, penalty types, and penalty levels are essential to, but only a part of, a system that includes broad public acceptance, active enforcement, effective administration of penalties, and publicity (NHTSA, 2001a).