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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.