Place an an unmarked Camry beside a busy road with a radar gun and a camera and hundreds of motorists will soon be receiving a speeding notice in the mail. But here’s the thing – it does little to change driver behaviour and it does not have any effect on the carnage on our roads.
People’s attitudes to driving are well established by the time they reach adulthood. An accident or near-accident may well change a driver’s behaviour but rarely permanently. For the average driver, the loss of a licence may be a wake-up call or enough of an inconvenience to modify their behaviour. The fear of getting caught breaking the rules and being penalised may modifies behaviour.
But many people in an accident will be in denial that it was in any way their fault. How many times have you been abused by a driver who has just done something stupid or illegal and put you at risk?
Loss of licence … is no deterrent whatsoever.
In terms of punishments for dangerous driving, loss of licence may be enough for some, but for others it is no deterrent whatsoever. They fail to see the connection between cause and effect, so the threat of punishment is irrelevant. Our courts are filled with people who, after repeated fines and loss of licence, continue to put other road users at risk.
But put a visible police presence on the roads and people change their behaviour. What does your accelerator foot do when you see a police car?
When there’s a highway patrol car ahead, nobody speeds by even a few km/h, everybody indicates when they should and keeps left. The police don’t have to enforce the rules because our fear of being caught makes us ultra-cautious.
But because the risk of being caught and fined in normal everyday driving is relatively low, despite multi-million dollar advertising campaigns telling us otherwise, many drivers stretch the rules, driving just a little over the limit, running an amber light they could have stopped for, creeping through a stop sign.
Most road safety campaigns are simplistic in the extreme.
It’s a reasonable assumption that nobody makes a conscious decision to do something in a car and end up dead as a result. Most road safety campaigns are simplistic in the extreme: wear a seat belt, don’t drink and drive and observe the speed limit.
There is no question that fines are a very ineffective deterrent to irresponsible road behaviour. They work for some, including governments, which enjoy the revenue.
Authorities are notoriously tight-lipped about the amount owing from the number of unpaid and outstanding infringement notices across Australia, but it is in the billions. In WA alone, thousands of people owe more than $259 million, with the worst offender owing more than $250,000. In South Australia, one woman owes more than $75,000 and the total for South Australia is $215 million (2011 figures). Meanwhile, in Queensland, outstanding fines total $774 million and $100 million were deemed “unrecoverable” in the last financial year. Victoria’s fine dodgers have clocked up $850 million in unpaid fines.
It is a sad but true fact of life that everybody thinks he or she is an above-average driver. Therefore, most people believe the police should leave them alone and concentrate on bad drivers, and that advertising campaigns targeting bad drivers are aimed at other people, not them.
Of course, while speeding and other fines constitute such a huge revenue stream for governments, there is no incentive for them to investigate more efficient solutions.
Paul Murrell is a staff writer at Practical Motoring, where this opinion piece first appeared.