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At the Lunch Table

Never a dull moment when we have lunch together. One of my colleagues raises an interesting question (albeit a utilitarian one): is it in “society’s interest” to have drivers of oncoming traffic “flash their lights” at you when you are approaching a state trooper staking out a speed trap? After all, “we” are expending resources to have the trooper keep people from speeding, and by warning people about it, the trooper seems to be wasting his time!

My comment to him was to ask if he ever gives the time to someone at an airport? He quickly answered, “yes.” And he does this for the same reason that many of us do, because we hope to have the favor returned. But that is not a good enough reason to warn your fellow travelers about a speed trap he says. In the case of giving the time, the transaction seems to be positive sum, wealth creating. But in the case of the speed trap, the transaction seems to merely be a transfer of wealth from “society” to the formerly speeding individual.

What do we think? I would note that he does not take advantage of coupons when he shops.

5 Responses to “At the Lunch Table”

  1. noodleguy says:

    I’m not sure what the question is here, really.

    Is it in “society”‘s best interest for speeding drivers to be warned about speed traps? Who the heck is “society” for one thing, but never mind that.
    I think it is very much like the giving the time example, actually. How much wealth is being lost by the driver for the few minutes of the trooper’s time being waster? Probably very minimal amounts.

    Its a repeated interaction (with different people, but nonetheless the principal holds) so next time when the oncoming traffic is warned how much wealth are they saving by not having the hassle of being pulled over, possibly even paying a monetary fine?

    Probably a lot more then those few minutes of wasted trooper time. Actually this is made clear by the fact that the speeding driver wants to avoid the trap at all. Isn’t he wasting his own wealth, after all he did pay for that trooper to be there and by avoiding him he is wasting the trooper’s time and effort. Of course not, the threat of being caught in the speed trap is much greater then the supposed threat of wasting the trooper’s time.

    The only person who loses in this game is probably the trooper. But hey, maybe he’d rather be sitting there eating doughnuts.

    And the goal is still achieved: people still slow down. Isn’t that the point of putting the trooper there in the first place? So maybe his time is not being wasted after all.

  2. econobran says:

    Perhaps drivers internalize the cost of their actions more if they are actually ticketed and have to pay a fine. They slow down when someone flashes their lights as a gut reaction — this does not translate into a permanent lesson. As someone who has been ticketed for speeding, you are more careful about your speed for a longer period of time if you actually have to pay a fine. Society is paying the trooper to be there. If he tickets enough people, then people will be more likely to obey the speed limit on that road, and the trooper can move on to the next road, or better yet, to solving other (more serious) crimes.

  3. Michael says:

    I think it depends on what you have to gain. These days, I really only flash my lights when there is something potentially dangerous ahead, like children crossing a street. In my younger days, when I had a higher tendency to speed, I flashed lights for cops too. Now that I am less of a speeder (okay, maybe +5), I don’t do it anymore.
    Now to be more of an econ geek, maybe we need to include the lost productivity of the driver due to the time spent on the side of the road. This could be valid for a trucker, but the minutes for other people could come at a low opportunity cost. We also have to ask whether or not the speed limit makes the roads safer, too, I guess.

  4. Jay says:

    I echo the response of econobran. “Curiosity killed the cat” is probably too broad of an analogy for this situation; maybe it should be “Curiosity shooed the cat away for a while.” Or maybe that’s irrelevant…

    I was never very keen on the unwritten language of flashing my headlights. I don’t know if I’m a rare exception or not, but let’s go with the “not:” why in the heck are you flashing your lights at me? Is it because you’re sensitive to light and can’t stand my shiny new bulbs? Jeez…

    It’s also quite possible that a cop that is strolling behind me in order to meet up at the traffic stop will see YOU flashing your lights, which is technically a violation of the law. You’ll be pulled over and fined. Your efforts are in vain.

    “See if I’ll ever try to help anyone again,” you’ll say in the back of your mind.

  5. skh.pcola says:

    An independent variable in this function may be the negative externality of higher accident rates at higher speeds…if you believe that speeding is inherently more dangerous than obeying posted speed limits. Which is not at all evident. It’s safest to drive near the same speed as the majority of the vehicles on the road and not try to be that dipwad in the fast lane stolidly observing the limit, while creating a navigational hazard to everybody else.

    I don’t flash my lights because I feel that people hould be hyper-aware while driving. Speeding in and of itself isn’t inherently dangerous, but driving _is_. The numbers prove it…>42,000 people are killed in traffic accidents every year.

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