Rinkonomics and Traffic Justice


Fewer injuries occur on the rink than on trampolines, skateboards, or baseball fields, despite the seemingly chaotic atmosphere. I was also shocked to see so many kids wearing helmets despite their proven lack of effectiveness in the most common types of ice skating injuries.

I just listened to a fascinating (as always) Freakonomics podcast about a concept developed by Economics Professor Daniel Klein called Rinkonomics.  On an ice skating rink, a few simple rules (everyone skating in the same general direction, no cell phones allowed, etc.) suffice to keep everyone relatively happy and safe.  Given the lack of central control and direction, someone unfamiliar with a rink might think that collisions would be extremely common.  In fact, as I can attest from recent experience, collisions are very rare and the most common type of injury is self-inflicted and involves only one skater.

Klein goes on to make the case for the rink as an analogy for economic life in general, and against central planning.  However, I was most struck by the following quote explaining why the rink functions as it does:

An important quality of collision is mutuality. If I collide with you, then you collide with me. And if I don’t collide with you, you don’t collide with me. In promoting my interest in avoiding collision with you, I also promote your interest in avoiding collision with me.

Therein lies the key to understanding, and potentially solving, one of the biggest public health crises (and undoubtedly the biggest public health crisis facing children) of our era.

It seems every day I read another story on StreetsBlog about people, and especially children, being killed in traffic on New York City streets.  The issue may finally be gaining traction in the mainstream media, as NYTimes’ Motherlode blog recently covered a Safe Streets march in Brooklyn.

The topic is so sad and depressing and, as the father of two young daughters living in the City, even scary.  While the drivers in most fatal collisions do show some remorse, so long as they are not drunk and they remain at the scene until police show up, they are rarely even ticketed for their behavior, let alone suffer jail time or a suspension of driving privileges.  How can reckless drivers be so callous and uncaring to begin with, wonder the parents of the victims?  Is it worth potentially ending a young child’s life to sip that coffee or read that text message?  Is it worth all the pain and agony to the parents to shave a few seconds off your commute?

Many propose that the answer to this problem is stricter enforcement of existing traffic laws.  Some call for reducing the speed limit, either with or without the addition of traffic-calming speed humps and road diets in strategic locations.  However, while these proposals may be worthwhile as interim solutions, all these strike me as being essentially similar to imposing a central planner on an ice skating rink.

The problem with these proposed solutions are twofold.  First, they are inherently limited in that they only solve the problem in limited locations.  Like the central planner at the rink who can only watch so many skaters at once, such solutions’ effectiveness is limited to the locations where traffic cops are deployed or where speed humps are installed.  Second, they lack what Klein (citing Friedrich Hayek) terms “local knowledge.”  At the rink,

Each skater has principles of motion all his own: Do I feel like going faster? Am I losing my balance? Can I handle this turn? Do I have to go to the bathroom? Am I content to follow the planner’s directions?

So, too, local conditions matter much more than strict adherence to the rules of the road. The speed limit in most locations in the city is 30 MPH, but maybe today is a particularly rainy and foggy day.  Is it still safe to travel at 30 MPH when you can barely see 10 feet ahead of you?  Maybe the car slowing to pass that speed hump or squeeze into that narrow lane is really an ambulance racing to the scene of a collision.  Do we really want to slow down all traffic on a given road?

This brings me back to Klein’s concept of mutuality.  Is it any wonder that we are seeing large increases in the cyclist and pedestrian share of traffic fatalities just as we are seeing decreases in the number of deaths of motorists?  As suggested by an Andy Singer cartoon (which unfortunately I could not find online) depicting a “careful driver” as one with a dagger pointed at his forehead emerging from the steering wheel, is it any wonder that today’s motorists don’t hesitate to speed and run red lights when they are surrounded by a two-ton steel cocoon laden with air bags, seat belts, stability control, anti-lock brakes, etc.?

I believe the solution to traffic violence lies in restoring mutuality to the typical car-on-bike and car-on-pedestrian collision.  While actually making cars more dangerous for the driver may not be morally acceptable, we can at least come close by ensuring careless and reckless drivers receive adequate punishment following a collision.

As Steve Vaccaro pointed out recently, current laws regarding reckless driving set too high a bar for conviction and carry inadequate penalties.  Today’s motorists are like skaters on the rink wearing full body armor and motorized skates.  With no fear of either direct bodily harm or indirect harm via the justice system, drivers are free to jump curbs and maim pedestrians with impunity.  Vaccaro suggests the City Council pass new legislation instituting a much broader definition for reckless driving coupled with much stricter penalties.

But to truly achieve Vision Zero, this must be accompanied by New York State legislation mandating immediate and much longer license suspensions following any collision, as well as specific laws putting the burden of proof on drivers to prove their innocence in any incident involving a vulnerable street user.  As The Economist points out, it is not enough to build high quality bicycle infrastructure and expand pedestrian space.  In order to really increase the mode share of cycling and walking, traffic regulations must be modified as well:

This regulatory regime places an extra burden on drivers. That burden can be summed up as follows: before you turn, you have to check carefully in the mirror to see whether there’s a cyclist there. That’s it. When you are driving in the Netherlands, you have to be more careful than you would when driving in America. Does this result in rampant injustice to drivers when accidents occur? No. It results in far fewer accidents. As the ANWB [the Dutch tourism and car owners’ organisation] says, some drivers may think the liability treatment gives cyclists “a blank check to ignore the rules. But a cyclist is not going to deliberately ride through a red light thinking: ‘I won’t have to pay the damages anyway.’ He is more likely to be influenced by the risk that he will land in the hospital.”

The Dutch seem to have a clear understanding of how rinkonomics works on the road.  It’s about time Americans understood, too.


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