Law in Contemporary Society

Social Norms and Increasing Compliance With HOV Restrictions While Decreasing Police Enforcement

-- By BrandonGe - 26 Feb 2010, Revised 13 May 2010

The Destination

High occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes were first created in the 1960s and 1970s in response to rising foreign oil prices and the consequent desirability of lowering gas consumption. Creating the lanes became popular among cities as a way of encouraging carpooling, thereby increasing person throughput, increasing road capacity, and improving air quality. Although HOV lanes have possible benefits, much of this potential has not been realized because of the difficulty in enforcing lawful use.

High violation rates pervade the country, as problems inhere in human officers trying to distinguish violators from innocent carpoolers in moving vehicles on high-traffic roads. The naked eye has difficulty seeing occupants such as babies and nappers. Further complicating matters, some states have allowed owners of certain hybrid vehicles to apply for special license plates that let them use HOV lanes regardless of occupancy. Police officer enforcement can also be counterproductive. The draw of HOV lanes for carpoolers lies in their faster transit times, but officers slow traffic, both because many drivers slow down when they see a police car, and because suitable enforcement areas are often unavailable.

Because police officer enforcement is inefficient, the ultimate goal should be increasing compliance with HOV lane rules while decreasing reliance on police enforcement as much as possible, allowing deployment of officers to more productive areas. To achieve this, I propose that we focus on creating a social norm and stigmatizing violation of HOV lane restrictions (a theory that has also been described by Professor Strahilevitz).

The Vehicle

Many have proposed increasing fines, a solution that has helped decrease HOV violation rates in parts of the country. But imposition of draconian fines with only sporadic enforcement is often ineffective (see, for example, cheating in academic settings and the RIAA's difficulties in its battle against music piracy). To be effective, such a method must be complemented with more-than-sporadic police enforcement. Although greater fines would help offset the cost of enforcement, as well as give officers an incentive to be more diligent in catching violators, this is still not an optimal solution if the goal is to reduce the need for police enforcement as much as possible. Furthermore, extremely high fines may decrease public support for HOV lanes.

Barriers between HOV and unrestricted lanes increase the effectiveness of police officer enforcement, but lead to slower transit times in the HOV lane because of the amplified effect on traffic of slow drivers and officers writing citations. Also, the lower number of exits and entries for the HOV lane would discourage use even by legitimate carpoolers.

Cameras, although potent speeding deterrents, are far less effective in deterring HOV lane violations. Factors that complicate detecting the number of occupants in a vehicle include the speed of the vehicle, suboptimal lighting conditions, obstacles like headrests and windshields, and the size and position of occupants (for example, babies and nappers). Infrared technologies are riddled with similar problems. Even if an accurate technology were to develop, it would likely be prohibitively expensive, given that there are thousands of miles of HOV lanes in the US.

One successful solution has been the creation of a high occupancy toll (HOT) lane by allowing solo commuters to buy their way into the HOV lane. San Diego did this with their FasTrak program, launched in 1996, resulting in an increased number of carpoolers and decreased violation rate. Although patrol presence increased with the launch of the program, this cannot fully explain these successful results since historically, violation rates had not fallen and risen with the level of enforcement. Additionally, allowing solo commuters on the HOV lane makes distinguishing violators more difficult since one now must look for a transponder instead of additional occupants, so logic would seem to dictate that fewer drivers would be deterred from unlawfully using the HOV lane. So what explains the results?

The Route

Social norms can be an effective, low-maintenance way of encouraging people to act in certain ways. In class discussion and in the literature, it has been suggested that social norms play a role in homeowners continuing payments even when it is advantageous to walk away. There is a social stigma attached to foreclosure. We have also seen this with seat belt laws. It was only a few decades ago when few people wore seat belts. But because of seat belt laws, use of seat belts became so widespread that now many people buckle up upon sitting in a car without thinking twice. Other examples of social norms people generally adhere to without enforcement include not cursing in front of children, recycling, and leaving a tip after a meal in a restaurant.

There is already a social deterrent from violating HOV lane rules in areas that have not implemented a program similar to FasTrak. Violators frequently get dirty looks and honks from carpoolers. This, coupled with the volume of people a violator drives past during a traffic jam, can be a powerful deterrent for some. Nevertheless, given the unpopularity and underutilization of many HOV lanes, there are still many HOV lane violators who believe they are doing a social good in violating what they consider a stupid law.

The popularity of the FasTrak program, the stupidity of violation and risking hefty fines, and the availability of meaningful alternatives have helped create a community-wide stigma against violation. Additionally, increased difficulty in distinguishing violators creates an illusion of higher compliance. As violation rates decrease further, it becomes internalized that cheating is socially unacceptable, eventually reaching a point where people adhere to the rules voluntarily and with little enforcement. Guilt becomes the deterrent. Thus, creation of a social norm that produces guilt in violators should be the focus moving forward in improving nationwide compliance with HOV lane rules.


Webs Webs

r19 - 13 Jan 2012 - 23:14:08 - IanSullivan
This site is powered by the TWiki collaboration platform.
All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
All material marked as authored by Eben Moglen is available under the license terms CC-BY-SA version 4.
Syndicate this site RSSATOM