Swift and certain

Why do people misbehave and so often? Research suggests that lack of swift and certain apprehension and punishment encourages criminal behavior. If we know that authorities are absent or, if present, will do next to nothing should we transgress, we do bad things—over and over.

The linked article above focuses initially on traffic situations. Those of us who drive cars know something about such things. I, for one, avoid the freeways as much as possible, save for Fridays, when my wife and I must join the muck to head from Everett to Seattle, where our grandkids reside. It’s a treat well worth the effort, mind you. And, with some exceptions, the trip is decent enough, mostly because we can drive in the HOV lane, bypassing the vehicular goo to our right.

Yet, I am nevertheless bothered by the prevalence of bad drivers. My biggest irritant are those who immediately drive into the leftmost lane, then stay there as if they are masters of the domain. Meanwhile, other motorists join the queue behind them, all growing more anxious with each mile of impedance.

In Washington state it is against the law to drive in the leftmost freeway lane unless to pass another vehicle. Yeah, right. There are sparsely located signs indicating as much. No matter. Motorists flout the law, exercising what, for them, is their god-given right to seize a 12-foot-wide corridor for their exclusive use. Other motorists be damned.

Well, those increasingly anxious trailers must feel bottled up, which they are. That’s when things can go ugly.

Freeway travelers cannot help but notice skid marks on the freeways, indicators of vehicle collisions, some ending in horrible death. Many collisions result from over-anxious drivers seeking an escape from the congealed line of backed-up cars in the left lane. The would-be escapees sometimes miscalculate. They believe that they’ve discovered an opening, only to misjudge space and time.

In my previous life I made a living as a traffic accident reconstructionist. I would be called to a scene after the fact to survey the remnants of a collision, involving one or more vehicles. I would measure the skid marks, damaged vehicles, the scene itself, and whatever appeared related to the incident under investigation. Having gathered the evidence, I would then apply Newton’s laws and other appropriate physics and math to determine who did what.

One of the most spectacular effects of a collision occurs in relatively minor freeway accidents. Let’s explore one example.

Say that you are one of those motorists stuck behind a stubborn or otherwise oblivious domain-master. After several minutes, your patience ends. You’ve got to escape. You spot an opening to your right in the center lane. So you accelerate while moving in that direction. But you misjudge distances. In your maneuver the left front of your car clips the right rear of the car ahead of you that you’re trying to pass.

This seemingly little nudge produces extraordinary effects. The domain-master’s car is suddenly rotated counter-clockwise, putting the vehicle into a yaw and propelling it sharply left and out of the leftmost lane.

If we assume that the vehicles are traveling over 60 mph, which is most often the case in that left lane, the mishap can have dire consequences. The domain-master’s car may collide with a car to its left (e.g., in the HOV lane) or into an embankment or protective barrier. The sudden deceleration upon hitting another object at high speeds is what kills and maims.

If domain-masters knew that their obstructionist behavior would be quickly and consistently recognized and stopped by the Washington State Patrol, then, according to the linked article, there would be fewer such motorists and, therefore, fewer accidents involving impatient drivers. From the article:

In other words, people respond to how likely they are to get in trouble. So on roads where cops are more likely to pull over people for bad driving, maybe drivers are more likely to adhere to speed limits and avoid anything that might look like reckless driving.

I would change the enforcement emphasis, however. I’d sanction less the speeder and more the obstructionist.