There has been debates concerning the point system, many facts were put forwarded to persuade the drivers of its introduction and Europe was cited as example. It was found that the introduction of a penalty point system (also known as demerit points system) has a limited long term road safety effect. The penalty system has successfully prevented traffic law violations or crashes in the first year of application only. In spite of this, many countries have introduced such a system: in 2010, 19 of the 27 EU Member States had a penalty points system. Its popularity is very probably the result of people seeing it as fair to tackle multiple offenders more strictly.
What is a penalty points system?
In a country using a penalty points system, penalty points are meted out to the offender in addition to the normal penalty for the offence. These penalty points are personal, which with regard to enforcement means that they can only be imposed if the offender is halted by the police; they cannot be imposed on the vehicle owner via the vehicle registration number. In the UK, however, points may be imposed via the vehicle registration number; for example, when fixed position speed cameras are being used. The registration number holder is then assumed to have been the driver at the time of the offence. In the UK the burden of proof falls on the registration number holder; if the registration number holder was not the driver at that time, he or she must provide the evidence for it. In nearly all current penalty points systems offenders receive more penalty points if the offence is more serious. If a certain points limit is exceeded, revocation of the licence usually follows. In order to be allowed to drive again, the offender then has to pass the driving test again. In other penalty points systems, the licence is suspended temporarily (for a long period) if a points limit is reached. In nearly all countries that have a penalty points system, drivers can lower their number of points by good behaviour. Points dare subtracted when the offender is not fined for an offence that falls under the penalty points system for a certain (long) period. Practically all countries that have a penalty points system also have what are known as ‘driver improvement courses’, which also reduce the number of points.
How a penalty points system works?
Penalty points systems usually consist of three effective elements: prevention, selection, and correction.
The preventive effect of a penalty points system lies in the risk of losing the driving licence if caught for offences repeatedly. This is an extra reason to obey the traffic laws. There is a difference between the ‘general’ preventive effect and the ‘special’ preventive effect of a penalty points system. The general preventive effect should be found in a decrease in the number of offences for all drivers: they drive more carefully, in order to avoid getting a penalty point. The special preventive effect should be shown by a decrease in the number of offences by drivers who have already been imposed a penalty point after an earlier offence: they drive more carefully to avoid getting another point.
If a system can remove from traffic those road users who often behave dangerously, before they have actually caused a crash, this is good for road safety. Such a system can only be an effective means of selection if reckless drivers are tracked down in time, and if penalty points are indeed a good predictor of future crashes.
Systems in which drivers can have the number of points reduced by following a driver improvement course have an educational element that is intertwined with the preventive effect. A penalty point system with educational elements can only work if it is proven that following a training aimed at changing behaviour reduces the chance of recurrence. However this part was not introduced in the penalty point system of Mauritius.
Impact of a penalty points system on Road Safety
Although more and more countries implement a penalty points system – 19 of the 27 EU member states had penalty points system in 2010 – rather little is known about their effects. The decrease in the number of crashes in the first year after the introduction is often taken as evidence of the effectiveness of the penalty points system. The decrease generally is spectacular in the first months after the introduction. However, after the first year the number of serious crashes nearly always increases again (OECD, 2006).
Only Norway, Finland and the Netherlands are knownJto have-done-research farto the effectiveness of the penalty point system as a whole. All three studies show that the penalty point system in Norway, Finland and the Netherlands has no lasting effect on the number of serious crashes.
In Italy (Farchi et al., 2008) as well as in Ireland (Hussain et al., 2005), the number of crashes causing hospitalization decreased immediately after the introduction of the system. However, in both countries the number of hospitalizations increased again later.
In Canada, Redelmeier, Tibshirani & Evans (2003) found that only in the first month after having receive penalty points drivers adapted their driving style to such an extent that the crash rate clearly dropped. After this period, the crash rate returned to the same level as before. The crash rate was halved in the period of just over a month after being caught where it concerned offences for which points of average severity are given. The points limit would have been exceeded with four such offences. After this period the effect had disappeared. If it concerned serious offences with a lot of penalty points, i.e. two such offences would cause exceeding the limit, the crash rate decreased slightly, but not significantly, during this period. This seems to show that the small group of frequent offenders does not care about the consequences of a penalty points system, and carries on driving in the same manner as before.
Indications for a special preventive effect of elaborate points systems have also been found in Australia and the UK. Research in these countries (Hague, 1987; Corbett et al., 2008) shows that when drivers approach the limit of the maximal number of points allowed, the period between the identified offences for which points are imposed, increases. It must however be noted that in the UK others can take the responsibility for an offence and, hence, receive the penalty point (in return for money) because of the reversed burden of proof that is applied there. This way it is possible not to receive any penalty points by letting other people pay for them (illegally).
The results of the studies discussed above, point towards a temporary special preventive effect. This preventive effect is proportionally greater and lasts longer as the subjective probability of detection increases, as people also start to receive points for less serious offences, and as the maximum number of points allowed comes closer. Meanwhile, a penalty points system hardly seems to deter the group of serious offenders from continuing the same driving behaviour.
Effect of a penalty points system ?
Research (Chen et al., 1995; Daimantopoulou, 1997) has shown that especially serious offences in which drivers get many penalty points are good predictors of future crashes. The relation is strongest with young novice drivers. One fine already had so much predicting power that a second or third one hardly added any value. A penalty points system, and certainly one in which only serious offences get penalty points, has a limited selection value. Most offences are not detected. Licence withdrawal as a consequence of a penalty points system will often be too late. The selective effect of a penalty points system on road safety is assumed to be negligible.
Effect of educational element on a penalty points system ?
Driver improvement courses attempt to change behaviour and attitude. Some meta-analyses show that on average, driver improvement courses have very little to no effect. Nevertheless, some courses show a clear decrease in recidivism; almost all of these courses are aimed at the prevention of drink-driving.
Novice licence in the Netherlands
Since 2002 there has been a rather simple penalty points system for novice drivers in the Netherlands. Those who, in the five years after having obtained their driving licence, commit three serious offences for which they have been halted by the police, must take a driving test. If the driving skills during the test are insufficient, the official driving exam must be taken again. Since the introduction of this beginner’s licence, the number of serious crashes among young drivers (many of whom had such a licence on probation) has not decreased more than the number among a group of somewhat older drivers (of whom only a small percentage had a licence on probation; Vlakveld & Stipdonk, 2009). It is therefore unlikely that the Dutch licence on probation for novice drivers has a positive effect on the crash involvement of these novice drivers.
Public support for a penalty points system in the European Countries?
A survey in 23 European countries (SARTRE, 2004) shows that 76% of all drivers in these countries support a penalty points system that is uniform in all European Union countries. However, there are signs of a decreasing public support in the UK, which was the first European country to introduce a penalty points system in the 1960s.