This week’s podcast is called “The Perfect Crime”: in it, Stephen Dubner describes a way to kill someone without any punishment. (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.) But let’s be clear: Dubner isn’t suggesting that anyone actually try this. In fact, the problem is that too many people are doing it already.
So what’s “the perfect crime”? It turns out that if you are driving your car and run over a pedestrian, there’s a good chance — especially if you live in New York — that you’ll barely be punished. Why?
We hear from Lisa Smith, a former prosecutor and now a law professor, who tells us that just 5 percent of the New York drivers who are involved in a fatal crash with a pedestrian are arrested. As it happens, New York has particularly narrow standards for conviction in such cases; there is a lot of variance among states. Read More »
Our podcast “The Suicide Paradox” featured sociologist David Phillips, who spoke about his research on copycat suicides (a phenomenon he calls “the Werther Effect”). More recently, Philips has been studying drunk driving. Particularly, he’s been looking at drivers who are merely “buzzed” — with 0.01 percent blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) — and has found that the severity of life-threatening motor vehicle accidents increases significantly at BACs far lower than the current U.S. limit of 0.08 percent. In an email, Philips describes his latest research on buzzed drivers:
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My current research, just published in Injury Prevention, shows that even minimally buzzed drivers (with BAC=0.01%) are 46% more likely to be blamed for an accident than are the sober drivers they collide with. This indicates that there is no safe level of alcohol for drivers: any amount of alcohol markedly increases the risk to drivers and their passengers. We reached this conclusion after examining an official, U.S. dataset of more than 570,000 car crashes. The findings have implications for drivers, passengers, police, judges, lawyers, insurance companies, advocacy organizations (like MADD) and regulatory agencies.
That is what the headline of this fascinating article says. Here is a quote from the news report:
In lay language,” [Samah] El-Tantawy said in a U of T news release, “the [traffic lights] act as a team of players cooperating to win a game — much like players in a soccer match, where each player endeavors to score, but at the same time considers the ultimate goal of the entire team which is winning the match.
According to the article, travel times were reduced by 26 percent, which is fantastic, and which is what matters.
This doesn’t, however, seem to have much to do with game theory. Game theory is about one of two things: strategic behavior or finding sustainable equilbria. But the traffic lights don’t care about their own private utility. There is no sense in which they are actors at all, as traffic lights just do what you tell them to do. In economic terms, there is a central planner who sets the rules which the traffic lights obey. This new scheme provides a new and better set of rules (which, again, I emphasize is great), but I don’t think game theory should get the credit!
(Related: see our “Jane Austen, Game Theorist” podcast.)
Aaron Pilkington, an officer trainee at Air Force Officer Training School in Montgomery, Ala., writes to say:
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I was driving down the road the other day with a fellow trainee, pointing out to him that the particular road along which we were driving always has police officers hiding out and catching people speeding. Just as I said that, sure enough, we saw a police car pull out with lights on and pull someone over. My friend, Bill, said that he wondered if the song “Sweet Home Alabama” would work in Alabama. I asked him to elaborate.
My friend, who is from Rhode Island, explained that a couple of years ago he was speeding and got pulled over by a police officer. He said that the song “Sweet Home Alabama” was on the radio and that somehow the officer let him off on a warning. Some time later, he was pulled over again and had the song on his iPod. In the time between being pulled over by the police officer and the officer walking up to his window, he pulled the song up on his iPod and left it on loud enough to be heard by the police officer, but not too loud. Again, success. He said this happened one more time just a couple of months ago in Florida and that he now always has at the ready a CD with the song “Sweet Home Alabama,” just in case he gets pulled over again.
Season 4, Episode 3
This episode of Freakonomics Radio explores our surprising propensity for spite. We discover the gruesome etymology of the phrase “cut off your nose to spite your face” (it involves Medieval nuns cutting off their noses to preserve their chastity). Stephen Dubner and economist Benedikt Herrmann talk about so-called “money-burning” lab experiments, in which people often choose to take money away from other participants – even when it means giving up some of their own cash. Also: why do we take pleasure in harming others? So much so that we’re willing to harm ourselves in the process? The answer may lie in our biology: Freakonomics Radio producer Katherine Wells talks with biologist E. O. Wilson about whether spite exists in nature. Later in the hour, we head to Bogota, Colombia, where the mayor used unconventional methods to bring order to the city: he hired mimes to mimic and embarrass people who were violating traffic laws — and it worked. Then, Stephen Dubner talks to Robert Cialdini, best known for his research on the psychology of persuasion, about how peer pressure, and good old fashioned shame, can greatly affect the way people behave.
The 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics was recently awarded for symmetry breaking and its consequence, the Higgs boson—a particle so well known that, according to the president of the American Physical Society, “[i]f you’re a physicist, you can’t get in a taxi anywhere in the world without having the driver ask you about the Higgs particle.” Teaching the symmetry unit in my own course this semester, I couldn’t help wondering about symmetry as I drove through an apparent example of symmetry: roundabouts or traffic circles.
Roundabouts use two complementary systems for controlling traffic flow: (1) Traffic in the roundabout has priority, or (2) traffic entering the roundabout has priority. The choice seems so symmetric, like choosing right- or left-hand traffic. In the United Kingdom, traffic in the roundabout has priority. In contrast, on many Massachusetts roundabouts, including one on my commute, entering traffic has priority. Read More »
Traffic in Austin is a mess, mainly because the city is long and linear (east-west travel is made difficult by the topography). In increasingly long rush hours, traffic barely moves on either north-south freeway. To solve the problem, the city is adding one lane in each direction to one freeway, but there will be tolls on that lane. Moreover, the tolls will be variable — but not by time of day or day of week. They will vary with traffic speed, rising when the average speed in the lane drops below 50 mph. Pretty neat — peak-load pricing taken to its logical extreme. The technology that makes this possible is fairly recent. And it’s a good example of how technical improvements raise well-being — in this case, allowing those whose value of time is high to substitute money for their time and reducing congestion on the “free” lanes for the rest of us.