Right Medicine

Traffic offenses should be better classified in order to reduce their occurrence.

Indian streets are full of action. Haphazard it may seem, but is there an underlying method to the madness? Studies related to traffic are concerned with congestion reduction. They focus on design of lanes, footpaths and signals assuming people will more of less use these facilities as they are supposed to be used. We often praise the Westerners who wait patiently for the signal to turn green or willingly and with a smile, give the right of way to the pedestrians. The average Indian on the street today most certainly does not behave in this fashion. Why this happens to be the case or whether this is good or bad is not the point of this discussion. But a traffic system based on the assumption of a near perfect law-abiding citizen is not going to be very effective in India. A frank and honest appraisal of our street behavior should be taken into account while designing all pieces of the traffic puzzle from footpaths to fines. I am not saying that we need to accept this state of affairs and work around it. On the contrary we need to understand it, in order to change it.

Do higher fines reduce violations?

It certainly seems that way. Drunken driving has one of the highest fines along with a possibility of license suspension. Whereas parking in a wrongful manner or not wearing a helmet will cost you only 100 rupees[1]. So would raising the fines for all offenses reduce their occurrence? Probably. But would it result in the same magnitude of reduction for different offences? At the same level of fine amount, we see huge variation in the number of offenses (more than 7 times[2]). We are more prone to park our vehicle wrongly than not wearing our seat-belt (even after correcting for proportion of two-wheelers and four-wheelers). Does it have something to do with the fact that a seat-belt is there, readily available by your side? Whereas it is so hard to find a parking spot on a busy street. We are even less likely to drink and drive, because of the high fines or the large number of special drives to penalize such behavior (6 in Bangaluru last year[3]). Or is it because of the infamous Salman Khan case which received so much attention and analysis in the media that it plays on our minds every time we think about committing that offense?

Of course it will be a combination of all these factors. Understanding which factors are dominant in which type of violations will help us improve the way in which we approach the implementation, monitoring and enforcement of those particular violations.

Some traffic rules are just about habit. We learn from each other. When a new person comes to a city she observes what the citizens are doing and follows them. Something known as “collective conservatism” in behavioral economics. Once a particular group habit sets in, like not wearing a helmet, it is very hard to change that group behavior. An external stimulus, either as strong and consistent enforcement or targeted marketing campaign needs to be applied to change the behavior. It cannot be an one-off event. Erratic helmet checking drives by the Pune Traffic Police[4] have not managed to change the behavior of the citizens of Pune but consistent enforcement by their Bangaluru counterparts have resulted in greater compliance. There is a cost to this kind of enforcement but it reduces over time once the new normal is established.

In some cases, strict enforcement alone simply does not help. Parking is a prime example of this. Given that the highest number of challans have been for wrong parking it is clear that the enforcement has not be lax. But still the parking problem persists. One explanation is that demand far exceeds the supply. Economics 101 tells us that this happens when a good is underpriced. This is indeed the case with parking[5]. Another reason could be that people do not realize they have parked wrongly due to lack of clear signage. Thus both the pricing as well as the infrastructure problem needs to be solved before we can hope to reduce the number of parking violations significantly.

The third group is a really neglected one. The infrastructure is bad and no one really cares about the enforcement as well. Offenses like signal jumping and no entry violations fall in this category. Here, good infrastructure really means consistent infrastructure. For people to form a habit of obeying the red light, it has to be working everywhere and almost all the time. It is no use having few good traffic lights and few which are not working, obstructed, wrongly programmed, etc. For these violations to reduce the infrastructure needs to improve before enforcement can cause a lasting change in behavior. People cannot be forced to follow bad rules. The cost of enforcement will be too high and compliance will be short lived.

The stage that we would ideally like to reach is like the queue for BEST buses in Mumbai. It requires practically no enforcement. It is self-enforcing. New people see earlier people standing in a queue and they do the same. If someone tries to jump the queue the people already in the queue have a strong incentive to chuck them out. Only infrastructure that needs to be provided is the space and structure for people to stand.

People causing traffic jams through aggressive behavior at narrow intersections is a different class of problems. People need to realize that cooperating, not competing, is in their best interest. Also people who honk unnecessarily do so because they do not realize the external cost of their actions. If instead of charging a fine people caught honking are made to listen to 10 honks, they might be nudged to change their behavior for the better. In a similar vein people jumping signals can simply be made to wait 15 minutes. A 15-minute forced thinking break during a busy Monday morning commute can help a lot in changing behavior.

[1] http://www.btis.in/fines

[2] http://www.bangaloretrafficpolice.gov.in/index.php?btp=grp1&option=com_content

[3] http://www.bangaloretrafficpolice.gov.in/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=199&btp=199

[4] http://indianexpress.com/article/cities/pune/pune-police-once-again-promise-to-strictly-enforce-helmet-norm/

[5] http://shoup.bol.ucla.edu/PrefaceHighCostFreeParking.pdf

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