When you’re walking and riding around and you see people in 2-ton vehicles doing things that are dangerous to you, I think it’s natural response (especially for rule-followers like me) to think “Someone should stop them from doing that.” Often what they’re doing is already illegal, so it’s natural to think that enforcement by the police would be the way to fix the problem. And indeed, enforcement is one of the “three Es” of traditional traffic safety problem-solving: engineering, education, and enforcement.
You know what, though? I think it’s usually listed last for a reason. Enforcement for street safety is about fear: not doing something for fear of the consequences. And police enforcement is the wrong consequence for dangerous drivers to be afraid of, in my opinion. I want people to drive safely because they care about their fellow human beings, because they understand what it’s like to be the one out there walking or riding, because they know it won’t benefit them, won’t get them anywhere any faster if they try to cut corners (figuratively or literally). Fear has a place in this as well: I want people to fear the social disapproval of others who do feel that propelling a two-ton metal object around at high speed is a privilege that only the deserving should have. Fearing the police seems like a last resort.
Enforcement is important, because there will always be people who will try to get away with anything they can get away with, and because if there are no penalties for dangerous driving, then there’s little motivation for those people to change. And enforcement is entwined with the cultural change that would be required for people to feel the way I described above. Something being illegal and having heavy penalties reinforces a social sense that it’s unacceptable. But the equation goes both ways. Something has to be seen as unacceptable before it can be assigned heavy penalties.
Education is lovely, but I think the main burden here has to fall on engineering. We know how to create streets that are safe for people. If streets are designed for low car speeds and provide plenty of space for walking and biking, people will respond to the system, speeds will go down, more people will walk and bike, and the culture will become open to the notion that safe, slow driving is required, not optional. You stop at a stop sign before you get to the crosswalk because your neighbor’s child might be walking out in front of you any minute, or because you know how you feel when cars come too close when you’re walking. And you can stop at the stop sign and still see the intersection, because parking near corners isn’t allowed and so you have good visibility from the stop line.
Otherwise, stiff penalties for most types of routine dangerous driving, outside the more extreme cases, really are punitive, because drivers are largely responding to the system they’ve been provided. It sounds awful, and it should — I suffer the consequences of this every day, and so does everyone else who doesn’t go around dressed in a steel shell. But if the system is built with wide streets and gentle curves that encourage high speeds, if parked cars are allowed to obstruct visibility at corners, if walkers aren’t protected at crosswalks by one or both of traffic control devices (stop signs or signals) or very slow speeds, if cars can veer into and cut across bikeways on major streets, the system is telling drivers that these dangerous behaviors are acceptable, and drivers are hearing it. Sending mixed messages with heavy enforcement efforts and high penalties won’t solve the real problem: we have to fix the system.