Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Catching the Speed Demons

If you drive on the freeway, then you have probably driven over the speed limit at least once. Legally, you're not supposed to, but when there aren't many cars around, it just seems right and "safe" to drive faster. But, of course, most of you would only go 10-15 mph over the speed limit because anything above that is unsafe. (Technically, ANY speed over the speed limit is unsafe.) When you get pulled over for speeding, there's not much of a defense you could give. Telling the officer, "there weren't any cars around" probably won't get you out of a speeding ticket.

But when you get that speeding ticket for going 10 mph above the speed limit, you feel wronged! After all, there was another car in front of you that was going at least 30 mph over the speed limit. Why didn't the cop give that person a ticket rather than you! You think to yourself, "obviously someone who is driving faster than me is putting other motorists at more risk of injury."

Let's look at this from the police officer's perspective. He sees you going 10 mph ( a petty speeder) over the speed limit and he also sees another car going 50 mph over the speed limit (a real speed demon). Assume he gets paid a flat commission for catching a speeding motorist or a flat salary. Who will he give a ticket to?

There are two reasons for giving you a ticket rather than the speed demon:

1. Low-hanging fruit principle: It's easier to give you a ticket than a person who is going really fast.

2. Risk-reward principle: It is more physically risky for the officer to try to catch someone who is going 50 mph over the speed limit than someone who is going only slightly over the speed limit. Yet the reward for catching you is the same.

Hence, given the choice, police officers will always prefer to catch someone who is only going slightly above the speed limit as opposed to someone who is going dramatically above the speed limit.

Here are some questions to think about:

1. Assume that drivers who drive 50 mph over the speed limit put other motorists 100 times more at risk of death than a driver who drives only slightly above the speed limit. What incentives should police officers have to catch speed demons rather than petty speeders?

2. Is it efficient to give many tickets (quantity) to many petty speeders or a few tickets to a few speed demons (quality)?

Keywords: Low-hanging-fruit principle, Risk-Reward principle


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