Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Adverse Effects of a Security Measure: the Example of French Speedometers

As far as analogies might go, I find the example of French speedometers a revealing example of security failure.

Automated speedometers have been installed in many places along motorways and also in town centers or in rural areas. Those devices take a picture of every car going 5% or 10% above the speed limit. The driver is fined a high penalty and even gets points removed from his driving license. The license is invalidated once 12 points have been removed.

That sounds good, but there are all kinds of problems. To name just a few design problems:
  • People brake a lot when they see one ahead of them. They risk provoking an accident on a motorway just because of that.
  • Whether they were "shot" or not, they' re angry about it and they then speed up a lot, knowing there won't be another speedometer in the next few miles.
People started knowing the exact locations of the speedometers or even invested detectors, bundled in iPhones, Androids or other specific devices. So the government sent the policemen roam the country with "mobile" speedometers.
And then came the social problems:
  • Tax money is used to put fines on the taxpayers. If that's only in case of danger, that's good. But if it goes into fussiness, that's parasitic!
  • After a short drop in the death rates of road accidents, the system reached its limit and the death rates started stagnating again. So the government intensified the pressure on policemen. They are now accountable for the number of fines given in their area. That measures the efficiency of the system on an irrelevant variable.
  • Additionally, citizens are exasperated by this overpressure, clearly conscious that it's not an efficient security measure anymore.
  • In a significant number of cases, policemen start to put fines in places where they can do it easily, whether there is a real danger or not.
  • All that of course leads to a vicious circle where citizens are angry about policemen and about the government and where the "measure" of efficiency becomes more and more irrelevant.
  • Eventually, the policemen are so pressured to put speedometer fines that they forget to put fines for other -actually efficient- reasons. For example, you'll find more cars in poor conditions (no light, flat tyres...) than a few years ago.
There's also the border effect:
  • Foreigners are "shot" by the speedometers, but the French state doesn't know to whom the fine must be sent. In the end, they dont' have to pay and they don't risk to have their license removed. And they often profit from our beautiful roads at speeds higher than 180kmph. So citizens feel as if foreigners are better treated than themselves.

There's the implementation problem:
  • In their rush to put fines, policemen just park anywhere, including dangerous locations! They are a factor of accident sometimes.

And finally, there are the typical VIP exceptions that plague any security measure:
  • Police cars themselves are not subject to these fines, so currently the worst drivers you can find anywhere whether in town or on motorways are: policemen!

All in all, I'm impressed if the government behind that ever gets re-elected.