Broken Streets Theory: How to Alter the Psychology of Reckless Driving

Jessie Singer has a great feature in the latest issue of TA’s Reclaim magazine (now available online), examining the NYPD’s failure to curb dangerous driving. After pushing down violent crime rates so effectively based on data-driven analysis, she asks, why don’t police use the same techniques to tame the life-threatening hazards of New York City traffic?

Much of the answer, says Peter Moskos, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former Baltimore cop, boils down to the way police perceive their work:

traffic_agent.jpgPhoto: Wiley Norvell.

The NYPD fails to enforce traffic crime in part because the NYPD
does not track traffic crime. And part of the reason the NYPD doesn’t
track traffic crime is because deterring it doesn’t bring the same
clear rewards as more traditional law enforcement.

"It doesn’t draw on the skills police see themselves as having. It is
annoying and time-consuming for officers to do traffic stops," Moskos
says. "Partly because the people you are helping aren’t there to
how you are helping them. There is not much gratification for traffic
work on a personal or professional level, because the people you are
helping are not there to thank you."

To make the benefits of law-abiding behavior behind the wheel more apparent, perhaps a good first step would be to strengthen the NYPD’s working relationships with advocates for street safety. (Case in point: San Francisco’s new police chief, George Gascon, said he would consider creating a liaison to cyclists in an interview with Streetsblog San Francisco last month.)

Drawing on the "broken windows" school of policing that NYPD has famously employed for two decades as a core strategy to deter crime, Singer notes that New York’s streets will remain hazardous as long as motorists perceive the consequences of reckless driving to be arbitrary and rare:

Applying the rigor of the Broken Windows Theory to traffic enforcement
would change the way the NYPD measures and deters traffic crime. The
new regime would end the practice of consistently ignoring
moving violations spotted through the patrol car window. But more
importantly, as the application of Broken Windows did with street
crime, it would indicate to drivers that they cannot get away with it,
that the lawlessness police ignored in the past will no longer be
tolerated in the present.

"There is no question about it, you would have to do this on a regular
basis, almost consistent basis, to be effective," says Lou Riccio,
Commissioner at the NYC Department of Transportation during the Dinkins
administration. Riccio was one of several traffic experts interviewed
for the "Executive Order" report. "That’s the problem with enforcement,
it is random. [Behavioral psychologist B.F.] Skinner
said [you need] random rewards and certain punishments. What we do is
no rewards and random punishments, and they may actually exacerbate the
problem. If [drivers] get caught, they think it’s just the bad luck of
the draw. And therefore they don’t change their behavior."

  • Glenn

    In NYC, I think many drivers have the mindset of being in such a large herd that it’s nearly impossible to think of yourself as prey to enforce and feel indignant when they are caught…”didn’t you see that everyone else was doing the same thing?” They think the greatest chance of getting a ticket is if they speed more than 10 mph on the open highways outside the city.

    and they are right!

  • ED

    Great article! I know cops have our safety in mind but I fail to see them protecting pedestrians from traffic dangers. This makes it a lot clearer why and what needs to be done.

  • James

    Actually, the open highways outside of the city are just as much of a free for all as those within the city. I drive them almost every day and it’s basically Land of the Sociopaths. Remember, many, many NYPD cops live in the suburbs, and given the reality that enforcement is terrible within the entire metro area, how are you going to make these cops get with the program once they are actually out in the field and away from their superiors?

  • Sharon

    Why couldn’t NYC increase the number of traffic police and ticket aggressively, the way they give parking tickets? If you don’t pay the meter, park in front of a hydrant, or even double park you’re almost guaranteed a ticket. Why not make it the same for running red lights? Wouldn’t the service more than pay for itself with the tickets issued?

  • Mike

    Glen, James, Sharon are right on. More true for lack of enforcement of cyclist behavior, but cars do run the reds and stop signs also.

    I love watching the police lounging in their car on the corner of 93rd & Riverside, too engrossed in reading the paper or talking on their cells to enforce against the cars who constantly blow the stop sign three feet from their front tires.

  • Cops don’t enforce traffic laws because the ability to flout those laws apparently comes with the badge. If they took other people’s violations seriously, they’d have to question their own disregard at least a wee bit more.

    Not going to happen without some serious top-down changes. And that’s unlikely since the enforcement of vehicle-related laws is incredibly unpopular. Hell, parking law enforcement has even been denounced by the mayoral candidate for the blinking Green Party.

    It’s Broken [House and Apartment} Windows. Car Windows–not so much.

  • JK

    Yes, we need traffic enforcement, but you can’t compare parking enforcement to moving violation enforcement. Parked cars are not moving and usually not occupied. It takes much, much less time to write a parking ticket than a moving violation. Moving cars are dangerous and hard to pursue on streets. It takes lots of time for the cop to make the stop and check the license. Last but not least, motorists stopped for moving violations are often very unpleasant, and potentially dangerous, to deal with. It’s hard to see cop culture changing a whole lot overnight, which is why automated enforcement is so important. Incidentally, the city’s idiotic curbside parking rules and the ticketing they result could well be undermining moving enforcement by increasing motorist resentment against all forms of enforcement.

  • JK

    That TA article fails to mention TrafficStat once, though it mentions Compstat a number of times. From what I’ve seen, it is disingenuous to say that NYPD management do not care or are indifferent to traffic safety. They just are not doing what needs to be done to end the culture of lawlessness on the streets. There is a difference. It is a matter of effectiveness, not apathy, and that’s reflected in Kelly’s befuddled comments. I don’t know the status of TrafficStat, but for close to a decade the cops carefully scrutinized traffic crash and summonsing data and shifted enforcement in response. I went to three TrafficStats, they were impressive and seemed to make a difference. Overall, injury crashes have declined over the last decade. Yes, much more needs to be done, but let’s not pretend that police management is doing nothing or are oblivious. That’s simply not true. More accurate is that the way they are measuring and perceiving the traffic safety problem is too limited.

  • Ian Turner


    My guess is that this is because red lights must be enforced by actual police officers, not traffic agents. Moving violations such as red lights must be enforced by police officers, presumably because of the extra danger involved in stopping drivers. Police officers, in turn, are more expensive due to the far more extensive training and judgement required of them. If I had to venture a guess, I’d say it’s quite possible that assigning police officers to red-light duty is actually a money-losing proposition.

    In my opinion, the right solution is to improve police officer productivity so that a cop enforcing traffic laws pays for his or her salary through ticket revenue. In such a world, we could assign as many police as are necessary to keep traffic under control.

  • J:Lai

    “Police officers, in turn, are more expensive due to the far more extensive training and judgement required of them.”

    That was funny.

  • Enforcement is definitely one solution but perhaps a more powerful solution would be modifying the machine structure of transportation systems based on cars.

    First easy steps would be greatly to reduce legal speeds and the use of physical speed reduction methods. Governors exist on electric bikes to limit auxiliary-power-only travel to 20 miles per hour and could bed installed in cars as well; redesigning roads, etc.

    But, the most effective solution would likely include accelerated migration to much more sensible mobility amplification methods.


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