— Pity the poor traffic cop.
He's the last guy you want to see in your rear-view mirror when you're speeding down the highway. Why isn't he out looking for murderers instead of nailing drivers for minor infractions of the law?
Well, according to a major research project by scientists in Canada and California, that cop just might be saving your life. Or the life of someone else.
The researchers have found that a traffic ticket reduces a driver's chance of being involved in a fatal accident by a whopping 35 percent, at least for a few weeks. The effect doesn't last long, however. Within three to four months, the lead foot is back on the pedal and the risk of killing yourself or someone else is back up to where it was before that cop stared you in the eye and wrote out that expensive citation.
The bottom line, according to the research, published in the June 28 issue of The Lancet, is that traffic tickets save lives. Maybe thousands of lives, every year. Yet traffic laws are enforced sporadically, almost as if by whim, partly because people just don't like traffic cops, and there are lots of other things for the government to spend money on than enforcing highway safety laws.
The Grim Statistics
That attitude needs to be changed, according to Donald A. Redelmeier of the University of Toronto and Robert J. Tibshirani of Stanford University. Both men are medical researchers, and this isn't the first time they've taken a hard look at highway safety. Their 1998 study caused a stir when they linked cell phone usage to traffic accidents. Now they're back, saying traffic tickets are good for our health.
They were prodded into this project by some very grim statistics. Each year, more than a million persons die in traffic accidents worldwide. If that many people died of SARS in a year, the public response would probably border on hysteria, but we have come to accept traffic fatalities as a way of life.
In addition, another 25 million people around the world are permanently disabled by traffic accidents, and many of them — as well as the fatalities — are children.
Taking It Easy After a Ticket?
When Redelmeier and Tibshirani and fellow researcher Leonard Evans set out to see if traffic tickets really do any good, they found an enormous resource in the Canadian province of Ontario. The full driving record of every licensed driver there was made available to them, warts and all, giving the researchers a huge data base of more than 10 million licensed drivers, 8,975 of whom were involved in a fatal accident during the 11-year period covered by the research, from 1988 through 1998.
"We looked at the month prior to a fatal accident, and the number of traffic convictions, and then the same month in the year before," says Tibshirani, a statistician. "What we found was that there were fewer tickets in the month before a fatal accident than there were a year before, and that suggests there's a protective effect of having a ticket."
In other words, when the number of citations went down, the number of fatal accidents went up the following month, and when the number of tickets went up, the number of fatal accidents dropped the following month. The analysis shows that fatal accidents declined by 35 percent because of citations.
Apparently, people just drove more cautiously following a traffic citation, but that only lasted a maximum of four months, the researchers say. After that brief respite, it was back to business as usual for most motorists.
Citations’ Effects Consistent
The scientists also turned up some surprising results.
"Most of the crashes did not involve alcohol and were not at an intersection," they report in their research paper. Most occurred during the summer months when the streets were dry (65 percent) rather than wet (18 percent) or covered with snow (17 percent).
They also found that the "relative risk reduction associated with traffic convictions was remarkably consistent among subgroups of licensed drivers," so the same results apply to women as well as men, regardless of age, prior driving record, and other personal data.
Men, however, were involved in far more fatal accidents than women (73 percent to 27 percent) and the most accident-prone age was between 30 and 50. Alcohol was detected in only 7 percent of the accidents.
The researchers also addressed the commonly held belief that traffic citations cause more accidents than they prevent because so many people are killed during police chases. They found that only 24 deaths could be linked to writing citations during the 11-year period. That included 17 suspects, five bystanders and two police officers.
"The typical suspect who died was a 26-year-old man pursued by police after fleeing a spot check for alcohol or a speeding violation," they report. The two police officers were killed in separate events when they were hit by a car while writing a ticket for another motorist.
Who Really Pays?
The researchers admit there are a few gaps in their findings. The statistics do not include Ontario drivers who may have been involved in a fatal accident somewhere outside that province. Nor can they say that every traffic ticket leads to a reduction in accidents. But the statistics suggest a correlation between the number of citations and the number of fatalities.
They also point out that the innocent are often made to pay the price for careless drivers.
"Unlike other common diseases, the victims are often young and need significant subsequent care for decades. Most crashes are unintended, unexpected, and could have been prevented by a small difference in driver behavior."
So the next time you see that cop in your rear-view mirror, give him, or her, a broad smile.
Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.