The hidden benefits of traffic tickets.

How we get from here to there.
Aug. 28 2009 1:36 PM

In Praise of Traffic Tickets

Don't roll your eyes. They're good for you in more ways than you think.

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The program recalls the "broken windows" theory, made famous by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling, which argued, using the metaphor of one broken window on a building inexorably leading to more, that not enforcing smaller, "quality-of-life" issues encourages larger transgressions:

Window-breaking does not necessarily occur on a large scale because some areas are inhabited by determined window-breakers whereas others are populated by window-lovers; rather, one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and sobreaking more windows costs nothing.

Both broken windows and data-driven policing have offered as at least partial explanations for New York City's declining crime rate, and it would seem logical that a similar program would help reduce the level of traffic deaths and injury. One person driving fast, or going through a red light, or even failing to signal, is essentially a broken window—a sign that no one cares. But again we come up against social resistance in equating aggressive driving with crime. This was nowhere more evident than in a review of my book Traffic by James Q. Wilson himself, who opened with the statement: "I drive my car very fast." Now, I have no way of knowing how fast "very fast" is or where he does this fast driving. And even though the review is a nice one, I couldn't help but notice the irony that this behavior is presumably against the law, and the fact that he does it without reprimand contributes to a lessened respect for traffic law and perhaps the law itself. ("We suggest," as it was put in the broken-windows article, "that 'untended' behavior also leads to the breakdown of community controls.")

Even the progenitor of broken-windows theory cannot see how it might apply to the public space of the road, which speaks to the conflicted feeling we have toward traffic laws. On the one hand, surveys do find a clear majority of people concerned about traffic violations. (In one study, speeding on residential roads ranked as the No. 1 "antisocial behavior" people were concerned with.) On the other hand, drivers routinely speed through residential environments. Since we all tend to emphasize "other drivers" as the problem in any traffic incident, traffic tickets, when they do come, can be written off as bad luck or merely some cop "making a quota."

On that front, in fact, there is some evidence that local police do indeed issue more tickets when their communities are faced with budgetary problems. A study by economists Michael D. Makowsky and Thomas Stratmann found that Massachusetts towns in "financial distress" were more likely to issue a ticket than give a warning to out-of-town drivers. But they also found that out-of-town drivers were more implicated in crashes and, finally, that an increase in tickets not only bolstered the town's coffers; it led to fewer crashes.

Correction, Aug. 30, 2009: This piece originally stated that Leonard Little missed just six football games after his 1998 crash and racked up another DUI six years later. In fact, he missed eight football games, and he was not convicted of driving while intoxicated in the later incident. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

Tom Vanderbilt is author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, now available in paperback. He is contributing editor to Artforum, Print, and I.D.; contributing writer to Design Observer; and has written for many publications, including Wired, the Wilson Quarterly, the New York Times Magazine, and the London Review of Books. He blogs at and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can follow him on Twitter at