Making profits from incivility on the roads

I hardly ever drive anymore since I moved close to where I work. So whenever I do, the incivility on the roads leaps out at me. People do things in cars they would never do in other settings. Honking. Swearing. Cutting to the front of the line. And that is just my wife. The other drivers are far meaner.

One obvious reason is that you don’t have to live with the consequences for any length of time. If you cut in line at airport security, you will be in close proximity to the people you insulted for quite some time. With a car you make a quick getaway. Making that getaway also means you are unlikely to be physically beaten, whereas giving someone the finger as you walk down the sidewalk has no such safety.

When I used to commute, there was one particular interchange where incivility ruled. (For those who know Chicago, it is where the Dan Ryan feeds into the Eisenhower.) There are two lanes when you exit the highway. One lane goes to other highway, the other goes to a surface street. Hardly anyone ever wants to go that surface street. There can be a half-mile backup of cars waiting patiently to get on the highway, and about 20% of the drivers rudely and illegally cut in at the last second after pretending they are heading toward the surface street. Every honest person that waits in line is delayed 15 minutes or more because of the cheaters.

Social scientists sometimes talk about the concept of “identity.” It is the idea that you have a particular vision of the kind of person you are, and you feel awful when you do things that are out of line with that vision. That leads you to take actions that are seemingly not in your short-run best interest. In economics, George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton popularized the idea. I had read their papers, but in general have such a weak sense of identity that I never really understood what they were talking about. The first time I really got what they meant was when I realized that a key part of my identity was that I was not the kind of person who would cut in line to shorten my commute, even though it would be easy to do so, and seemed crazy to wait for 15 minutes in this long line. But, if I were to cut in line, I would have to fundamentally rethink the kind of person I was.

The fact that I don’t mind when my taxi driver cuts in these lines (actually, I kind of enjoy it) probably shows that I have a long ways to go in my moral development.

All this is actually just a rambling prelude to my main point. I was in New York City the other day and my taxi cab driver bypassed a long line of cars exiting the freeway to cut in at the last second. As usual, I enjoyed being an innocent bystander/beneficiary to this little crime. But what happened next was even more gratifying to the economist in me. A police officer was standing in the middle of the road, waving every car that cut in line over to the shoulder, where a second officer was handing out tickets like an assembly line. By my rough estimate, these two officers were giving out 30 tickets an hour at $115 a pop. At over $1,500 per officer per hour (assuming the tickets get paid), this was a fantastic money making proposition for the city. And it nails just the right people. Speeding doesn’t really hurt other people very much, except indirectly. So to my mind it makes much more sense to go directly after the mean-spirited behavior like cutting in line. This is very much in the spirit of Bratton’s “broken windows” policing philosophy. I’m not sure it cuts down the number of cheaters on the roads in any fundamental way since the probability of getting caught remains vanishingly small. Still, the beauty of it is that (1) every driver that follows the rules feels a rush of glee over the rude drivers getting nailed, and (2) it is a very efficient way of taxing bad behavior.

So, my policy recommendation to police departments across the country is to find the spots on the roads that lend themselves to this sort of policing and let the fun begin.


Well, on the road there is always the ideal of 'universal surveillance.' Though there would of course be some dispute over the division between the public/private because roads are a public good there is some validation of a trespass on privacy.

There are cameras already that catch people who speed red lights, why not cameras that catch people who cut in line? Preferably, this happens on a symbolic level, the 'God-fearing' assume that everything is ultimately tabulated and that preserving 'identity' or preserving 'salvation' matters. Maybe this is the case most of the time in places like the twin cities. Chicago is notoriously secular so there are a lot of overly selfish drivers who tend to be mean spirited. Maybe cameras wouldn't be necessary in the twin cities but from your description of Chicago road conditions it sounds like it would be advisable.


I gotta blame road designers for these "extended merge" situations also. The proliferation of stop lights on many road contributes to the problem as it creates more bottlenecks - more opportunities to pass people who have "pre-merged".

The interesting thing to me, is that many of these situations would largely go away if a large number of drivers refuses to "pre merge." I would like to see more drivers would do this as it's "difficult" for one vehicle to occupy the empty lane as the "blocker" to prevent opportunists from racing by, but it is "easy" for a many vehicles to achieve the same end by filling up both lanes until the merge must occur. There's something to strength in numbers.

John Salisbury

I'd like to believe otherwise but it's probably true that civility is directly proportional to proximity, and how threatening the other guy looks, which explains why people on the internet can be really nasty without fear of reprisal. I've thought about this myself lately, that respect and courtesy have their origin in fear, and it may be ironic that someone today who feels confidently safe in his environment might express that feeling with hurtful candor--and I wonder if that isn't a good thing? I've had people say to me, "I lied because I didn't want to hurt your feelings," and I've replied, "Please don't do that, I'd much prefer knowing you'd be honest with me, even if it stings; if I can't be sure you're telling me the truth then your words become worthless to me."
Do you think people can be honest and civil, at the same time? Do you think people can do so without some kind of threat hanging over them? It all has to do with moral conduct and, historically, that "universal surveillance" mentioned above has been employed, with uneven result. How would we instill the concept of Conscience, in the absence of Punishment?
[Sorry this is so long.]



Seems like a really problematic reason to give a ticket. In fact, I'd think they'd be easily contestable in court. How is the cop to prove that you didn't mean to exit to the side street and then change your mind at the last minute? It could happen, and if they wanted to make exiting a requirement, they could put in a curb or barrier. Not having that means that they planned on folks changing their mind at the last moment. Getting ticketed for changing one's mind is crazy. So I don't see how the cops can get away with this.

I also don't recall anything from driver's ed about having to change lanes early or not being allowed to change lanes late. Unless there's a double yellow line or a raised barrier it just seems like an opinion on the part of those who don't like seeing other folks jump ahead of them in line. But a moving violation? I don't see it.


I'm curious - what were the tickets for?


First of all, the rule they are violating is either crossing a solid line or a zebra. If, in fact, there is a dotted line then they are not in violation and it probably means that a merge was intended at that point.

But, in most cases they are just taking advantage of a seldom enforced law.

As someone who never would be so rude I was mortified to find myself in a car where the driver did it over and over. Of course I couldn't say anything but I felt as though as was a party to "his crim."


"How would we instill the concept of Conscience, in the absence of Punishment?"
I think Dr. Levitt described a situation where it was instilled without any need for punishment when he stated that if he were to cheat by moving through the line unfairly it would trouble his self-image. There are millions of acts of conscience performed every day that have no basis in a fear of punishment, but rather are based on respect of your fellow travelers. The actions of police and others engaged in correctional activities are focused on the exceptions to the golden rule, which by and large humanity follows to an astonishing degree.
Dr Levitt, I agree that the focus of our government officials could often be re-directed from relatively untroubling but unlawful acts to those that include the potential for real harm, such as mucking up the traffic flow in an already tricky intersection. It is in the acts we perform that give others the room they need to move about that conscience blooms.


John Salisbury

"By and large humanity follows [the golden rule] to an astonishing degree."

Tell me where you live, abottuhhm, and I will come to live there.
Jane Goodall wrote in her book "Reason for Hope" that she believed morality has evolved and continues to evolve, but she expressed concern that the biosphere may be destroyed long before we learn how to live harmoniously within it. The golden rule has been preached the world around for thousands of years and, as I see it, by and large humanity disregards the golden rule, to an astonishing degree.
I don't mean to imply that I promote punishment-as-incentive, I'm asking what alternative method(s) might be considered to foster self-discipline, before the hedonism of the "few" results in a permanent anhedonia for the many?


You could just help out:


I've always wondered why it isn't efficient for everyone to merge at the last minute at least for the case where n lanes turn into n-1 lanes (not for where you're blocking anything like an offramp). I've heard that argument that water going down a funnel "merges at the last minute" ie you dont' see water lining up to go down the hole. And obviously water is efficient, look at the aerodynamic shape of a raindrop!

I'm not sure if I believe the water argument. But lining up early doesn't make sense to me either, because if you follow a reductio ad absurdum argument:

Say you have 3 lanes that eventually reduce to 2. Since it's bad to merge at the last minute, it must be better to merge earlier. If it's better to merge earlier, it must be best to merge immidiately, if it's best to merge immediately it's even better to never be in that lane at all. So even if we have ten miles of 3 lanes, we should never use that 3rd lane!

I know these aren't formal arguments, but I've never understood what the optimal behavior is for these situations.

Any ideas?



busterdog! YOU read my mind.

Traffic is like the flow of water and each car is like a water molecule. What happens when a single car has trouble getting through the metaphorical spigot that is a highway exit ramp/ on ramp? All the other water molecules get stuck behind that one molecule and can't get out of the pipeline. One car, one driver, causes traffic pileups and snarls behind them because they don't realize the effect they are causing by not moving the flow of traffic along.

I used to be a 'polite' driver, but then I realized that I was just holding up traffic by getting myself and others stuck behind me and bad drivers who a) leave too much space between them in slow moving on/off ramps, and b) are horrible drivers that don't know how to exit or enter a highway with finesse.

No, I don't like to but/cut in front of other drivers, but if there is a gap in the wait line I will fill that gap. Sometimes these lines we wait in are so long that they disrupt the traffic for other roads or exits nearby. Sometimes exit ramp traffic spills onto the highway instead of fitting only in the exit lane. What a nightmare.

By filling in a wide gap left between cars in a exit ramp lane I am doing my part to prevent an exit ramp from getting even longer. My car shortens the would-be wait line (by not getting in queue at the end of the line) and allows more room for other drivers to get a place in that line. It sounds selfish, and contrived, but I think people who fill in those gaps between cars help move traffic along.

I am angered however if someone forces their way into an exit or on ramp as opposed to filling in the gaps between cars. That is akin to filling in the gaps at, say the local DMV office line where it is important to wait your turn to meet the DMV staff who control the speed at which people get out of those offices.



Greg is right where a merge is *necessary*. The problem here is the unnecessary merge created by moving out into an exit only lane then back into the main flow of traffic. This is "prisoner's dillemma" bad for everybody.

I have observed actual evidence to this fact on a large scale traffic problem. A few years ago, as the T-Rex highway expansion program got underway in Denver, the first thing they did was to close down all these exit-only lanes to make room for constrution equipment. Nothing else. They removed several miles of road from traffic carrying capacity.

The result? My hour and twenty minutes commute got TWENTY MINUTES SHORTER! There's freakonomics for you: eliminating 15% of the road made traffic flow 25% faster! Even the former cheaters were moving faster than before. Merges happened at ONE point that other drivers could accomodate, and the cheaters had to just stay in their lanes, eliminating the extra merges and especially the very-destructive-to-traffic-flow last-minute-cut-ins.

Folks who cheat in exit-only lanes are completely screwing over EVERYBODY, including yourselves. Bravo to the NYC cops for getting those a**holes.



Its really sounds like traffic patterns portray a microcosm of society itself.
There are: rude drivers(the selfish loudmouths who clog up traffic)
the good drivers(use common sense, if there's a spot, why not fill it)
the too giving drivers(why don't you go in front of me...pleasssssee....go in front of me)

Given that this is the case, it would be far better for there to be more good drivers, drivers who are comfortable on the road. Maybe giving more rigid driving examinations on freeways would be a good solution. I know that at my local testing center we drive around this dinky track a few times. It doesn't simulate real world driving experiences at all.


I'd love to see that happen on roads everywhere. Our family lives in Belgium and in Romania: if only I saw such actions from our local police... I would not only feel that much better about my own road ethic, but seeing the uncivil drivers get punished would simply make my eyes gleam with hidden joy!

The only place in the world where just about all drivers are truly polite that I have seen so far is Luxembourg where I lived for a year. Yes, it's the small rich country of 400,000 people bordering France, Germany and Belgium. I shouldn't wonder why this village of a nation exhibits such wonderful road behaviour. Just look at their GDP/capita tables and inequality indices! :)


The police are giving out tickets because changing lanes is the most dangerous thing you can legally do on a road, to yourself and to others. Every time you change a lane you are giving someone a chance to screw up and kill themselves, or you. It is more dangerous than illegal stuff like speeding.

Tiago Silveira

The brazillian authorities have been doing this for about five years now. But they only do it for the money, so there's a cycle:

they start passing tickets on several spots;
the drivers stop doing it on those spots;
they stop getting money;
they stop passing tickets;
the cheaters come back


Not sure the water theory holds water w/r/t vehicle traffic. The basic difference is that water is tightly packed throughout the wide and narrow stream; traffic is not.

Take an extreme example. Assume that once a car gets through to the narrow stream -- let's say a single lane -- it can travel at the maximum speed of 65 mph, i.e., there is no traffic jam there. And assume that in the 2 lane highway before the exit ramp cars can travel at 65 mph with spacing. If cars in the 2 lanes compete for ordinal position on the 1 lane at the exit ramp cars will have to slow down or stop because there is no space at the exit ramp for cars to maintain speed and get into position. If instead they organized into one lane beforehand, while there was spacing, there would not be as much if any slowdown.


Another reason to think the water example is too simplistic is Greg's reductio argument. The reductio is true for water. The funnel doesn't get the water out faster than a non-funnel, i.e., having 4 lanes of water merging to 2 lanes does not speed up the water (please ignore pressure issues which aren't relevant to the analogy) vs. having a long tube of water, i.e. 2 lanes all the way. The time it takes for the last drop to get out is the same.


From talking to experts in this area, the thing that drives traffic jams, and that really slows people down in situations like this is reaction times: people, unlike water, don't move immediately when the person in front of them moves.

Hence, the more a line of traffic is forced to stop and start again, as usually happens whenever anybody merges, the longer it takes to get everyone through. If everyone merges at the same time, this effect is minimised.


michelle wrote:

>>Chicago is notoriously secular so there are a lot of overly selfish drivers who tend to be mean spirited.