SAFETY AND THE LAW: When Are Higher Penalties The Right Tool For Changing Behaviors

The Cambridge City Council recently passed a home rule petition (HB3852) asking the state Legislature to give it the authority to significantly increase the penalties to be paid by pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists for a wide variety of road violations.  Jaywalking fines would increase from $1 to $75.  Cyclists could be fined up to $75 for any of several violations, from lacking appropriate night-time lights and reflectors to extending the front fork beyond its original length.  (See below for full list of bicycling prohibitions.*)  Any vehicle (truck, car, or bike) ignoring a yield or stop sign or a blinking or solid red light could be fined up to $250.

A local group called TROMP (Travel Responsibility Outreach & Mentoring Project) proposed the bill. The Cambridge Bicycle Committee opposes it.

Rumors are also flying that Mayor Menino will propose a helmet law with stiff penalties.  Some public health people support it; most bike advocates are opposed.

Are passing laws and increasing penalties the best way to improve street safety?  Maybe it is good strategy in some situations but not others.  Perhaps there are many situations in which changing the road’s infrastructure (e.g. creating “complete streets” or using traffic calming to lower speeds to no more than 20 mph) are more likely to change behavior and/or improve safety. It turns out that, in fact, we actually know a lot about this issue.


The Hammer of the Law

Laws are good ways to establish norms. No-smoking laws changed our expectation of what people do in bars, restaurants, and many public places.  Of course, laws are not enough.  The passage of a new law does, in itself, create some amount of public awareness.  It was amazing how quickly smoking disappeared from restaurants once the second-hand smoke laws were passed.

But the law itself is seldom enough.  The bigger the required behavioral change from previous practice the more additional public outreach is needed.  Getting trans-fat out of restaurant food required a continuing series of explanations and demonstrations.

And education by itself is seldom enough.  Consistent and widespread enforcement is also needed – and work best when accompanied by sufficiently impactful incentives and penalties.  The seat-belt law has much less impact in states (such as Massachusetts) where it is only a “secondary offense.”  The bottle bill has become less effective as the 5 cents deposit has dropped in value over the years.

On the other hand, sometimes raising penalties leads to less enforcement – which is at least partly why the Cambridge Bicycle Committee opposes it:  “We believe the proposed fines are draconian and likely to be counterproductive.  They will not address genuine issues with enforcement of existing traffic laws, and may exacerbate police officers’ reluctance to hand out enormous fines for relatively minor offenses.  As a result, enforcement may come to seem arbitrary or even discriminatory.”

The law is a tool, a powerful one.  But the presence of a powerful tool sometimes distorts our understanding of the tasks needed to do the job – the cliché is that “when you’re holding a hammer, you think that every problem looks like a nail.”  It’s possible that increasing safety is not a nail, that other tools are better suited for the task.   It helps to start by thinking about what are the major causes of unsafe behavior among each of the modes:  pedestrians, car drivers, and cyclists.

Why Did The Pedestrian Cross The Street…

People aren’t stupid, and most of them aren’t suicidal, so what’s the reason they cross in the middle of the block, or before the walk signal flashed, or against the light?  (And some people are stupid – people who jump out from between parked cars in rapidly moving traffic are self-nominating for the Darwin Awards.)  Of course, there is a school of thought that says that jaywalking is actually a good thing, an implicit statement that the streets belong to everyone; a softer version is that jaywalking is really an indicator that the streets are safe for everyone.

In fact, most jaywalking is rational – a shortcut taken when it is safe to do so.  Columnist Eric Jaffe points out that people who rush or are walking longer distances tend to jaywalk.  But it is, in most cases, illegal.  It is also, I think, partly cultural – people in Boston jaywalk a lot more than in other parts of the country.  Perhaps it comes from the stress and hurry that our New England culture imposes; perhaps from the feelings of impatience and self-importance our national culture encourages.  We just got to get there as quickly as possible, and the world should get out of our way!

On the other hand, recent research suggests that the nature of our roads and intersections also play a role.  Jaywalking increases on one-way roads and where there is curb-side parking, both of which reduce the risk of crossing by eliminating cross traffic or providing a safe launching zone.  On the other hand, high traffic volume, larger numbers of car lanes, and signalization tend to encourage crossing at intersections.

And another likely cause is the disfunctionality of many of our intersections.  It seldom feels like pressing the walk-signal push button does anything – it either takes too long or simply isn’t working.  (A wonderful exception is the signal Cambridge installed on Concord Ave. between Bay State Road and Fresh Pond – when it’s pressed the walk signal actually appears!)  Or else the traffic lights and crossing signals are timed to only allow a few seconds after what feels like minutes of waiting; even worse if when the crossing requires multiple steps each of which requires long waits.  (There are several intersections around the Boston Common that fit the first category; and several on Commonwealth Ave. around the BU Bridge that fit the second!  The signal timing proposed by the Army Core of Engineers for the reconstructed intersection on Park Drive in front of the Landmark Center will force some walkers to wait for nearly 3 minutes!)  Research shows that people forced to wait more than 45 seconds begin to ignore the traffic lights – not because they’re scoff-laws but because the transportation system is dysfunctional.

Yes, it is very dangerous for someone to step directly out into heavy or speeding traffic.  And it’s dangerous to walk without paying attention to where you are going:  cell phones (but not music players) increase distraction and danger for walkers as much as for car drivers.  But few instances of pedestrian misbehavior would have serious consequences if cars were moving slower.  Slower traffic not only reduces the likelihood of an accident occurring, it also reduces the consequences of those that do occur – you have a 85% chance of surviving if hit by a car going 20 miles per hour, but a 95% chance of dying if the car is going 40 mph, which is currently a legal and typical speed on many city streets.  Maybe the best safety slogan is “20 is plenty.”

Laws forbidding jaywalking may raise consciousness, and may even change behavior if regularly enforced with appropriate penalties.  But jaywalking is already illegal, and hasn’t stopped.  It is probable that the practice will continue wherever it feels safe to do so, illegal or not.

And if reducing pedestrian injuries is the goal, as opposed to keeping the streets clear of people so that cars can move as fast and unhindered as possible, then a better approach would be slowing down cars and making it easier for walkers to get across the road – which is best accomplished by changing our transportation infrastructure.  And the best part is that studies of urban roads (as opposed to Interstates and major arterials) show that slowing traffic does not reduce total throughput or travel times in most situations – meaning that we can increase safety without increasing congestion or pollution.

Score one for infrastructure over penalties.

Bicycling Is A Numbers Game

As long as our society treats bicycling as a deviant and high-risk activity we should not be surprised to find risk-taking rule-breakers are bicycles.  And there are some really crazy bicyclists out there.  They stand out partly because of the visibility of their stupidity: it’s hard to not notice someone flying into an intersection full of crossing cars.  But at least the person most likely to get hurt by this is the idiot himself.

It’s much worse when some bikes in ways that endanger others, such as racing down a busy sidewalk.  I have a particular fury at cyclists who play with invisibility by wearing dark clothes and not using lights at night, or who race the wrong way down a one-way street.   Acting in ways that endangers others isn’t about being adventurous, it’s about being anti-social.  I have no problem with forbidding and penalizing those whose behavior jeopardizes others.

But the law is a blunt hammer.  I think that there are many situations in which safety is actually increased when a cyclist acts as if a red light or a stop sign were actually a yield sign – requiring that you slow, make sure there’s no cross traffic or pedestrians, and then continue.  This gives the cyclists a head start through the intersection and avoids the danger of getting hit by turning cars.  At a minimum, I think cyclists should always act as if there’s a “bike box” in front of the pedestrian crossing, and should move up through the line of cars waiting at a red light to get to that “virtual box.”  But, currently, much of this is also illegal.

Study after study shows that the single most powerful factor in increasing bicyclist safety is increasing the number of bicyclists on the road – it not only makes car drivers more aware and accepting of their presence, it also tends to slow typical car speeds because they have narrower lanes or just because drivers become more cautious on a multi-modal road.  Even the infamous “Boston drivers” have become significantly friendlier and accommodating to cyclists as our numbers increased over the past decade.

So if safety is our goal, the tools we really need are those that make more people – people who are currently nervous about biking in traffic – feel ok about commuting, running errands, or spending recreational time on their bikes.  While increased bike skill and safety training help, experience has shown that the best way to accomplish this is by creating off-road paths, traffic separated cycle tracks, buffered bike lanes, even standard “bike lanes” – along with lots of secure bike parking.

As new infrastructure attracts more mainstream cyclists on to the roads it is likely that the overall norms of cyclist behavior will change – law or no law, higher penalties or not.  In fact, overzealous enforcement of some laws or the passage of other laws such as adult helmet requirements will actually discourage people from cycling.  (I always wear a helmet and encourage others to do so; but I think it would be a mistake to require it – experience in other cities suggests that we’d immediately loose a significant percentage of potential riders.)  So raising penalties for bad bicycling behavior, or passing helmet laws, are as likely to make things worse as to make them better.

Score another one for infrastructure over penalties.


If improved infrastructure is the best tool for improved pedestrian and bicyclist safety, what is the top priority for cars?  We know a lot about how to make high speed highways safer – primarily making the road more tolerant of driver error through soft curves, wide lanes, mono-modality, few distractions, good lighting, and lots of way-finding signage. But transportation specialists are slowly coming to realize that these (at least the first three or four) have exactly the opposite effect on safety in urban streets.  (Not to mention that treating urban streets as if they were highways also encourages sprawl, reduces the livability and desirability of adjacent residential areas, and increases various types of air/water/noise pollution.)

What does increase car-related safety in urban settings?  It’s pretty simple:  slow drivers down and force them to pay more attention to their surroundings.  Fortunately, this also leads to greater safety for pedestrians and cyclists:  win-win!  And how can this be accomplished?  Traffic calming and multi-modal infrastructure!  Speed bumps and raised intersections.  Narrower car lanes.  Adding pedestrian and bicycle friendly infrastructure.

It also turns out that drivers pay a lot more attention to their surroundings when driving in a “shared space” without any mode-specific infrastructure – devoid of curbs, lanes, and traffic controls – and open to everyone using any mode of movement in which every user is responsible for their impact on everyone else.  Driving speed goes down, safety goes up – and, although it seems counter intuitive, traffic through-put improves!

Enforcement of traffic laws, and increasing penalties, also help.  New York and other cities have found that either the presence of police or of red-light violation cameras reduce the number of intersection accidents (although the cameras’ effect on more suburban roads remains controversial).  And New York City’s parking tickets are so high that people put a lot of effort into avoiding them.  Similarly, the $100 fine that Boston now imposes for parking in a bike lane has made many drivers think twice about that once-common practice – but only to the extent that they think it’s being actively enforced, and its only relevant because there are now bike lanes in the first place!

So when it comes to car drivers, it seems like a more even score between infrastructure and laws.

….And, for all its good intentions, the Cambridge Home Rule petition misses most of the marks.  As would the passage of a helmet law.

To its credit, TROMP has been also involved in public education and supports better ped/bike infrastructure.  Which is good, because if you want to change how people act on the street, your most effective tool is to change the structure of the street.  Good laws with significant penalties, backed up by consistent enforcement and lots of public education are not irrelevant.  But when it comes to travel behaviors, they are much less effective than changing the street.  As traffic engineers have proven on our highways, if you build it right you can make it safe.


* Section 11B of Chapter 85 of the General Laws forbids cyclists to ride at night without front and back lights and side reflectors, park in a way that blocks pedestrians or other vehicles, ride more than two abreast, take both hands off the handlebar, not have good brakes, carry a child age 1 to 4 (or under 40 pounds) in anything but a secure child seat (children under 1 year old aren’t allowed to be carried at all) , carry packages other than in a basket or on a rack, not have a real seat for each person (e.g. it’s illegal to give a lift to someone sitting across your front bar or on your rear rack or standing on hub-pegs, not audibly warn people you are coming, raising the handlebars above your shoulder, and lengthening the front fork beyond the manufacturer’s original design.


Previous related posts include:


>Why Do So Many People Do Such Stupid Things?

>GOING MAINSTREAM: Overcoming Discouragements to Walking & Bicycling

>Making Boston A World Class WALKING City

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