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Traffic fines and retrospective and prospective decision analysis

- July 24, 2008

The traffic accident that John mentioned makes me think of some more general issues of retrospective and prospective decision making.

It often seems to happen that punishments for reckless driving are much less severe than the effect of the crime itself. (Even being “slightly injured” in a car crash has gotta be a personal loss of much more than $50, not even counting hospital costs.) This is particularly striking given that not every offender is caught, so you might think that punishments would be higher for their deterrent value.

Why are the punishments so low? One reason is that many of the legislators who write the laws and judges who decide sentencing are themselves dangerous drivers at times, and I suspect that it can be easier for them to identify with the criminals than the victims. (If Gary Larsen were writing the laws, there’d probably be a death penalty for running over a dog.)

But I think there’s something deeper going on, having to do with retrospective and prospective decision analysis. In the driving example, it goes like this.

1. Suppose somebody (e.g., Dick Cheney) is driving dangerously but nobody is hurt, or not seriously. Then the response is that no serious harm was done–it’s just one of those things–so no point in having a big punishment.

2. Suppose somebody (e.g., Ted Kennedy or Laura Bush) is driving dangerously and seriously injures or kills someone. Then the response is that it’s a terrible tragedy but very bad luck, so what is gained by seriously punishing the driver.

The issue is that deaths and serious injuries are also rare–even if you drive recklessly, it’s extremely unlikely that you’ll kill someone in any given outing. So you’re stuck between punishing the almosts and might-have-beens or really laying down the hammer on the serious cases. No option seems quite right. Although I guess in this case the pedestrian will do all right because he’ll probably sue the driver for a couple of million dollars.