More notes about safe driving in traffic

Vox has a great piece entitled “Why you shouldn’t drive slowly in the left lane”. I won’t quote it at length, as one quotation pretty well sums it up: “It impedes traffic and probably makes everyone less safe”. I’ve written on this topic before [here and here] and think it’s fairly important so I was very glad to see it in a big outlet like this.

There are people who are expert in the study of traffic patterns, so I’m sure it was known to the authorities already. Why isn’t a penalty against it enforced more? If it was a phenomenon intelligible even to a guy like me who is not a traffic expert, not knowing is not an excuse.

I can think of two reasons. First, the responsible authorities can’t be seen to promote speeding, even safe speeding, because rationally ignorant people are likely to throw fits. The harms of unsafe speeding are very vivid and memorable, while the harms of unsafe slow driving are almost invisible except for the inconvenience it causes other drivers, and in my experience people tend to pin the blame on other drivers in traffic more or less uniformly, not on specific bad (slow) drivers. That the authorities tend to focus on speeding rather than slow driving is not surprising.

Second, it’s hard to enforce. If you’re a police officer on a four-lane Northern Virginia state highway, you’re more likely to be stuck far behind an offending driver where you can’t feasibly get to him than to notice him when you’re in a position to do something about it. You could radio ahead and have another patrol car pull him over, but that kind of coordination is difficult and unlikely. So it’s also not surprising that the rule is lightly enforced.

Of course, the next question is what can be done about it. For starters, driver education could emphasize the harms done by driving out of sync with other drivers. The safest driving conditions are predictable driving conditions that people can prepare for. Driving too slowly and changing lanes poorly throw off the pattern and thereby throw off drivers’ concentration. This is a recipe for trouble. Second, it means better enforcement of the rules against unsafe slow driving. I know I just said this was hard to do, but even a little more emphasis on it by the authorities would have a positive impact. I’ve definitely seen plenty of times on the interstate where it was feasible to pull somebody over who was slowly hogging the left lane; instead of focusing so much on people going safely over the speed limit, shift that energy to the slow left-lane drivers.

Third, let’s try to get creative with enforcement, as there are limits to what the police in their traditional operating modes can do. I have a suggestion linked above, though it relies on technology we don’t really have yet. Surely there are other ways to do this. Something like current E-Z Pass technology could also be used for this purpose. (Concerns about the surveillance state are very relevant, so that may not be ideal.) This post is pretty much off-the-cuff, so I don’t have a lot of other suggestions, but I’m sure people could dream up something given how fast the pace of technological development is going. Can you think of anything, dear readers?

It goes without saying that I think private management of roads would incentivize solutions more than the current system, but I’m not against baby steps.


Author: rfmcelroyiii

Student and instructor of economics.

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