Effective September 1, 2019, the new traffic rules in India imposed large fines for violations. On the average penalties have been increased 4 to 5 times. The premise? Drivers will be fearful and will follow the rules. Indian roads will become safer and will save many lives.

The policy has received support in many quarters: concerned citizens, families of road accident victims, bureaucrats and politicians of many hues. Intuitively it makes sense. Unfortunately, the new rules are not likely to bring about any significant change in the long run. Because larger fines do not work.

There is no question that Indian roads need to be made safer. Urgently. Of the 1.35 million road fatalities worldwide in 2018, India accounted for 150,000 (11%) deaths. But good intentions or need for urgent action do not make a policy effective. Science does.

Deterrence theory

Policy of penal fines is rooted in deterrence theory. It is expected that drivers will make an objective assessment of the consequence of errant behaviour and mend their ways. That it is wrong should be obvious. If consequences weighed heavily people would readily wear helmets, or fasten seatbelts. What can be more costly than one’s life?

A meta-analysis (2016) of a large number of studies showed that more than 100% increase in fines led to an increase of 4% increase in violations. Yes, increase! Research indicates that people do not seem to weigh consequences, or risk, objectively.

“Nothing will happen…”

Our assessment is subjective, intuitive, and sometimes flawed. We tend to assume low probability events will not occur. A rider that leaves the helmet behind and returns home safely begins to underestimate the probability of an accident. When it happens a number of times, the probability appears miniscule. Worse, escaping detection and penalty for a traffic violation appears like a reward.

Positive reinforcement affects learning perversely. It reinforces the belief ‘nothing will happen’.

Raising penalties does not deter errant behaviour when most people get away. In late 1980s and early 1990s many countries in Europe reduced penalties for drunk driving. It did not increase instances of driving under the influence. Around the same time several states in USA raised deterrence. Some prescribed jail sentence even for the first offence. Others made jail mandatory for repeat offenders. No effect of deterrence was observed on re-offending. Similar results were reported from Australia. In Canada longer jail sentences were seen to increase repeat offences.

Substantially larger penalties not only do not sustain change in rule violation, they appear unreasonable. They create feelings of injustice when the apprehended person observes others escape punishment. It can increase errant behaviour.

The cop at the kerb

Empirical studies have shown that visible presence of an enforcement vehicle parked by the side of the road increases adherence to speed limits. When detection and apprehension became certain, compliance to speed limits improved greatly.

In 2018 Riyadh (Saudi Arabia) implemented an automated system that photographed and sent notices to people using mobile phones while driving or for not wearing seat belts. A text message was sent to the driver stating the date, time, and nature of violation, and a ticket was issued automatically. A study observed 3400 drivers and found seatbelt use increased from 33.9% to 75.8%. Use of mobile phones while driving declined from 13.8% to 9.8%. Similar results have been confirmed in other parts of the western world.

When detection and apprehension became certain, compliance to speed limits improved greatly.

The role of technology in compliance

The solution is clearly to make the probability of detection and citation very high, ideally non-probabilistic. Penalties need to be significant, not very low. Excessive fines are not effective when there is a very good chance one can get away. And of course, fines have to be paid without fail, and swiftly. Several countries have implemented these methods using technology. India can too.

Changes in traffic rules affirm the Indian government has the will to make roads safer, save lives. Intentions are not enough. They have to be backed by significant investments in quality of roads, and making detection and punishment certain, automatic and swift. The big question is why policy makers rely on intuition and assumptions when science has the answers.