In which I have to agree with the ABD

…that remedial lectures are not an appropriate alternative to prosecution for people who use mobile phones while driving. Stopped clocks, and all that. Rather less frequently than twice a day in the ABD’s case.

Lincolnshire, amongst others, are extending their remedial courses — the sort that are already widely offered as an alternative to prosecution for those caught driving too fast — to those caught using phones while driving. Greville Burgess, principal road safety coordinator for the Lincolnshire Road Safety Partnership, claims that such courses “could save lives”, but, this being a local newspaper, no evidence or source for the claim is cited. Burgess says:

“The evidence from other diversionary courses is very positive in that nationally less than 1 per cent re-offend within three years of completing the course. This strongly suggests that education rather than simple penalty points and a fine is more effective.”

But the latter does not follow from the former: Burgess does not give us the re-offending rates for those who take the penalty points. Is there really a statistically significant difference in rates at which people are caught — mark that, caught* — re-offending depending on which sentence they picked? But then, the utility of such numbers would be compromised anyway by the very fact that the offender picks the sentence: there is no randomisation in the groups we are comparing. The person who thinks that £60 and the points is the more lenient sentence might be very different to the sort of person who would rather spend £80 on the day-long remedial course. (Of course, both sentences look to me like absurdly light ways to deal with those who endanger the lives of others, but…)

This is the sort of intervention that is perfectly suited to a proper randomised controlled trial. While we’re at it, we could see whether combining the interventions — prosecution and remedial education — works better than either one on its own. If education really does work so well, why not make it a compulsory addition rather than an optional alternative to prosecution?

I don’t know what evidence Burgess thinks he has for his claim that these courses save lives, or are better than the alternatives, and I can’t find any likely candidates in the literature. But there is plenty of research on the topic, and a review of all the best evidence we have on driver education programmes — 32 properly randomised and controlled trials of advanced and remedial driver education programmes.  They found that the courses entirely failed to prevent re-offending.

And so far as I know, nobody has ever thought to investigate whether there might be side-effects to these policies. We have a prime-minister who sees moral hazard everywhere he looks, and is worried about whether we have sufficient deterrents to crime. We should not limit our assessment of driver education programmes merely to the rate of re-offending amongst participants. We must look at the wider and less immediately obvious effects of classifying mobile phone use while driving as the type of activity that merely merits spending a day getting a good talking to from a retired policeman. Perhaps there are no such side-effects. We don’t know until we look.

But I almost forgot. The prime-minister is also keen on some offenders being allowed their second chance.

I fear that this is now the second time I have found myself siding with the Association of British Drivers. But if I were to write about them every time they said something totally batshit crazy, I’d never get a moment’s rest.

* my own entirely unscientific observation is that, despite being universally recognised as extremely moronic behaviour, mobile phone use while driving is very common. The capture rate must be pretty embarrassing. I fear the 1% re-offending rate says far more about the efficacy of the policing than the efficacy of any remedies.

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4 responses to “In which I have to agree with the ABD

  1. Your last paragrpah is the one that says it all: “re-offending” means “one of the very small proportion of people doing this illegal activity who actually get caught”.

  2. I was under the impression that the use of re-education had a much more cynical motive – though one which, in this instance, I almost approve of. If the police catch you speeding or using your mobile, a fine goes into the coffers of central government, and nothing goes back to the police to fund more active intervention. If you take the option of the course, your course fee goes back to the police and so can contribute to the cost of the cameras etc which caught you. You also have to give up a day’s leave and pay more than the cost of the fine, so it is only attractive if you want to stop a build-up of points on your licence, perhaps because you have got points already, or are concerned about your insurance premiums.

    Bearing in mind the number of offenders who manage to hang onto their licences with much more than 12 points, and the pathetic sanctions imposed on seriously bad driving, perhaps it isn’t such a bad idea.

  3. 1 in 100 caught in 3 years is actually a lot if you think about it.

    The serious offenders (ie. worse than “just” 40 in a 30) are less likely to be offered remedial classes too… and I am sure these are the types more likely to reoffend.

    I think people would be less likely to reoffend with points on their licence with a growing possibility they might lose it, well… unless you read recent information on how many are allowed to keep their licences with 12+ points.

  4. It would be interesting to survey peoples attitudes the accidental discharge of a firearm in a public place in which no one was actually (directly) harmed and bad driving. Both have the same potential to cause a fatality, but I suspect the public would consider one to be more serious than the other…

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