November 22, 2005
A traffic enforcement mechanism we can all applaud

The Freakonomics Blog suggests a traffic-enforcement mechanism that would be (in the city of Houston, at least) both highly lucrative and deeply satisfying.

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 vanishly 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.

Oh, man, I can think of quite a few exits around town where I'd love to see this. The only problem with most of them (frex, I-10 Eastbound to I-45 South) is that there'd be no good place for the police to be while handing out the citations; never mind the huge number of cars they'd have to pull over. I can dream, though, can't I?

Posted by Charles Kuffner on November 22, 2005 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles | TrackBack

I share your dream.

Posted by: Donna on November 22, 2005 3:48 PM

In terms of keeping traffic flowing, cutting in at the last second maximizes flow. Lining up single file for miles makes a jam worse. It's analogous with gas bubbles in liquid.
The cops were making a mint for the city though.

Posted by: pogo on November 22, 2005 7:04 PM

You missed the related piece in Rad Salee's column.

Speaking of the [Toll Road] authority, it kicked off a campaign last week against road rage and aggressive driving. (Wonder if long waits at toll gates might contribute to that?)

HCTRA says this behavior includes speeding, tailgating, weaving, honking and flashing lights, as well as "passing and then slowing down to teach the other driver a lesson."

Victims are asked to report violators by calling 281-584-7500 — carefully — so the agency can locate you by getting a satellite fix on your phone, then swoop down on the aggressive driver and calm him or her.

This is very bizarre, it seems like a late April Fools joke. I also looked on HCTRA's website and elsewhere, no mention of this anywhere but Rad's column. Either he's a sucker, or a scooper.

Posted by: John D. Wilson on November 22, 2005 8:30 PM

A true solution to red-light runners and stop sign scofflaws is to have the police enforce the laws. The cameras are merely a revenue scheme to generate more taxpayer cash for bureaucrats and the incentive is to issue as many tickets as possible.

Posted by: Tom Bazan on November 22, 2005 9:00 PM

Cutting in at the last second does not maximize flow, because the bottleneck is past the cutting in point. Otherwise there wouldn't be a need to cut in. Cutting in just maximizes proof that the driver is a dickhead.

Posted by: George on November 23, 2005 7:51 AM

George correctly stated that cutting in at the last minute does NOT maximize flow. The traffic backup develops because drivers do not merge properly. If you cut in, you are part of the problem, not the solution.

Posted by: Jeff on November 23, 2005 8:32 AM

Actually, when the line for the Bolivar Ferry gets a little backed up, the cops down there DO patrol the thing to keep people from cheating. I don't know if they write tickets, but I have seen them make people go to the back of the line after catching them cutting in.

With HPD's manpower shortage that our local leaders refuse to address, however, this sort of thing simply isn't an option for Houston. Manpower is already stretched too thin coping with actual public safety issues to deal with mere public aggravations.

Posted by: kevin whited on November 23, 2005 8:48 AM

Cutting in doesn't maximize flow. However, cutting in does reward drivers for generally being pretty good at what they do. How many times do people cut in and not have to cut people off because the moron they cut in front of isn't paying attention to the line moving? (I understand that some people cut in by literally driving over the hatched lines and almost forcing there way in--why anybody would let them in is beyond me, but proving my next point). Most people are poor drivers and I don't want to waste my time behind them.

Posted by: Double B on November 23, 2005 8:51 AM

Agree with George - and those who try to cut in at the last second, but then freeze up (or get cut off by people like me who superglue themselves to the car in front, to prevent cut ins) wind up blocking the 2nd lane, which widens the bottleneck from one lane to two... and then people approaching see stopped traffic in 2 lanes and hit their brakes, triggering a cascade that slows all lanes.

Posted by: Wutzke on November 23, 2005 9:05 AM

If you are able to cut in well beyond the back-up point (due to the guaranteed inattentiveness of at least one car [natch, SUV] in the backed-up lane) without causing any traffic slowdown in the other lane, I have no absolutely no problem with that. Those drivers are not causing any additional problem (as fluid dynamics proves).

Granted, I am like Wutzke and glue myself, once in line, to the car in front of me. But if someone has the talent to cut in later without effect, it should not be derided. If anyone gets in a lane prematurely, they should not lambast those that, by luck or skill, were able to avoid it longer. Its really jealousy.

HOwever, those that cut-in at the last minute, or do so creating a slow-down in the lane they're coming from should be lambasted and derided for making the problem much worse.

Admission: I ALWAYS cut-in late as I can have the ability (and small vehicle) to pull it off without slowing the lane I'm coming from. However, I am willing to go to the next exit if I cannot quickly merge without causing a slowdown.

Posted by: Mase on November 23, 2005 11:25 AM

Most people on Houston roads have their head concentrated on anything but driving. Cutting in isn't a problem if you can do it without stopping or slowing in the in the lane you're leaving. And, with all the slow/non attentive people out there finding a "victim" to cut off isn't a problem 90% of the time.

Why no enforcement of those p*ckerheads who insist on slowing traffic by driving below the speed limit in the left hand lane(s)? it is illegal too. Speed doesn't kill. Difference in speed does. Someone going a legal 65 MPH hitting someone doing 40MPH is just as deadly as 85 and 60 in a 70MPH zone. If you have open road in front of you and you're in the left hand lane with cars up your backside, get the hell outta the way!

Posted by: HeyNow on November 23, 2005 12:13 PM

North Loop Southbound approaching I-10 is notorious for this.

I'd add the feeder hoppers in the Katy West of the loop at the Chimney Rock and Bingle/Voss exits.

Isn't feeder hopping illegal too?

Posted by: Davebo on November 23, 2005 4:48 PM

I remember this from my college operations research class: cutting in line neither improves nor worsens flow (at least among those drivers actually exiting - as Wutzke points out, they can cause problems for those trying to continue down the freeway - not to mention the risk of accidents such behaviour produces). What the cut-off artist does is decrease his wait time dramatically by stealing a little time from everyone else in line (kind of like Richard Pryor in Superman III), so the average wait remains exactly the same.

The only problem I can see with enforcing laws against cutting in line is a legal one: how do you define the crime? Speeding, rolling through stop signs, etc. are (often) less serious, but they're easy for the police to enforce because they're so precisely defined: you either came to a complete stop or you didn't, and the video camera in the cop car will resolve any disputes.

Cutting in line, in contrast, revolves around the consent of the driver who was cut off: did he let the guy in line voluntarily, or not? So if someone chooses to fight a cutting-off ticket, unless the guy who got cut off comes to court, the defendant can always claim he was let in line voluntarily, so there was no offense.

You could try to get around this by defining it as a violation irrespective of that, but that only creates other problems: at what point along the road did it become illegal to engage in what would otherwise have been a perfectly legal lane change? Now the officer has to make a judgement call.

Perhaps making it illegal to change lanes at a speed below 5 MPH would work. At any rate, cutting in line reminds me a bit of Potter Stewart's infamous definition of porn: we all know it when we see it, but it's not so easy to define it.

Posted by: Mathwiz on November 25, 2005 10:45 AM

Mathwiz - As someone pointed out in the Freakonomics comment, the line-cutters are usually crossing a solid white line, which is a moving violation. That's what I'd expect them to get nailed for.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on November 25, 2005 2:21 PM

Crossing a single solid white line is not a violation. Crossing a double white line is.

If people would just get in the exit lane far enough back, there would be no bottleneck in the first place. This applies to constuction areas too. There are usually signs at least 1/2 a mile back stating when a lane will end

Posted by: Marcos Cantu on November 26, 2005 11:25 AM