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Are speeding tickets punishing?

No one likes seeing those flashing red lights in their rear view mirror when they know they were speeding. Some people try to be overly nice or flat out lie to get out of the ticket, but when that doesn’t work we’re left with at least a $150 fine. But did that ticket function as a punisher and actually reduce the likelihood of you speeding in the future?

Speeding is dangerous, your risk of death or debilitating injury doubles for every 10 mph that you drive over the speed limit[1], but still 41 million people receive speeding tickets each year[2]! A 2007 longitudinal study of speeding violators in Maryland[3] found that drivers who received a speeding ticket the following year were twice as likely to receive repeated speeding tickets during the follow up. This study also looked at the possible consequences to tickets; fines and points vs. probation before judgement. Fines and points, the most common consequence, overall had no significant effect on young drives and male drives. However, female drivers and drives who received probation before judgement did show a decrease in repeat citations. 'Probation before judgement' removes a guilty verdict and the judge issues tasks or volunteer hours to be completed instead.

The Science of the Speeding Ticket

The first speeding ticket, issued in 1899 to a New York City taxi drive for going 12 mph in an 8 mph zone, resulted in arrest and imprisonment[4]. I bet that guy didn’t speed again, but is our current system of speeding citations just as effective? Let’s look at a speeding ticket first from a drivers point of view.

Mary is driving to work in the morning, the line at Starbucks took longer than expected and now she’s running late. Instead of trying to explain why she’s 10 minutes late, Mary increases her speed and sees the minutes on her GPS go down.


98% of the time that Mary increases her speed, she is reinforced with arriving to her destination on time.

-Strong history of reinforcement related to speeding behavior-

2% of the time that Mary speeds she gets pulled over…

-limited history of punishment related to the speeding behavior-

…and this is a time she gets caught. Mary hears the siren and looks back to see a cop behind her. She pulls over and wait for him to come to her window. She’s very nice, says sorry and explains that she was running late, but he just takes her info and goes back to his car for what seems like forever.

-immediate punishment due to waiting-

The police officer comes back with her driver’s license and a ticket, not a warning, but an actual ticket!

-immediate positive punishment of the ticket, punishing associations to the police officer for delivering the ticket, punishing association to the location the ticket was received, and a significantly delayed negative punishment to pay the fine-

Mary goes on her way to work, annoyed that the police officer gave her a ticket. She gets to work, complains about the incident, and receives lots of attention and other people’s anecdotes of their speeding ticket stories. Also, now her late arrival is blamed on getting pulled over, not because she stopped at Starbucks.

-positive social reinforcement of the punishing associations from the police officer giving her a ticket and escape from punishment for being late-

Two months later Mary finds the crumpled-up ticket in her purse, realizes its due in a few days, so she goes online and pays the $200.

-No or low punishing effect to the speeding due to the delay-

A few days later she’s running late again, she starts speeding, but when she gets near that intersection where the police officer was waiting, she slows down. And if she sees a police car, or any car that looks like a police car, her foot goes to the brake.

From this experience, the location of the original ticket and the sight of a police car has become punishing to the speeding behavior, but the speeding ticket and fine did not.

So why are speeding tickets still in use?

The average police officer brings in $300,000 per year in speeding ticket revenue, which equals to about $6.2 billion per year for all tickets in the U.S.[2]

Speeding tickets are a way for cities to make lots of money for little effort, their purpose is not to decrease your speeding habits.

What would decrease speeding?

If you really wanted to decrease speeding, the punishment would need to be intense enough for the individual (which would greatly vary across people) and would need to be more immediately following the behavior (speeding).

In most Scandinavian countries, they use an income based system to determine your fine. They determine how much spending money you have left at the end of the day, divide that by two, then multiply it by the number of days they think you should be punished for, depending on the severity of the offense. Driving 15 mph over the speed limit results in a multiplier of 12 days[5]. This makes the punishment intense enough to have an effect on behavior and it is individualized across people, but it also has resulted in speeding tickets of up to €170,000.

Radar speed signs (those speed limit signs that also tell you how fast you’re driving) are another option to prompt drivers to slow down without punishment. We drive on autopilot most of the time on frequently traveled routes, often times exceeding the posted speed limit. By showing drivers how fast they are going with bright flashing numbers compared to the legal speed limit, data shows that speeding can be reduced by 62%. Up to 46% of those drivers that were speeding didn’t realize they were speeding[6]. And for those that are speeding intentionally, it might make them think twice if they know their speed is being noticed, even if it’s just by the flashing lights telling them to 'slow down' on the sign.

Even though speeding tickets may not actually reduce our speeding behavior, still remember that speeding can be deadly. And next time you get annoyed that you got caught and have to pay a $200 fine, just be thankful you didn't get that ticket in Finland!


[1] Lincoln, N. (2013) Is Speeding Worth the Risks? Retrieved January 25, 2017 from

[2] Driving Citation Statistics. Retrieved January 25, 2017 from

[3] Lawpoolsri, S., Li, J., & Braver, E.R., Do speeding tickets reduce the likelihood of receiving subsequent speeding tickets? A longitudinal study of speeding violators in Maryland. Traffic Injury Prevention (2007); 8(1):26-34

[4] Speeding Ticket Facts (2014). Retrieved January 25, 2017 from

[5] Traffic Ticket. Retrieved on January 25, 2017 from

[6] Why Do Radar Speed Signs Work? Retrieved on January 25, 2017 from

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