Not so Fast….Is the Nightmare of Georgian Road (UN)Safety About to End? 

Not so Fast….Is the Nightmare of Georgian Road (UN)Safety About to End? 

The FINANCIAL -- On April 21, the Parliament of Georgia approved changes to the Road Traffic law introducing the so-called demerit points system (DPS) in Georgia. Under the DPS every driver will receive a reserve of 100 points. For each traffic violation, in addition to monetary penalty, the points will be deducted from a 100 points “allowance”. 

Once the driver “burns” through all 100 points, his or her license will be revoked for one year. Those who do not burn through their points quickly will receive a new reserve of 100 points every year on January 1st. 

As a member of the society I am perturbed by daily news about fatalities and tragic accidents on the Georgian roads. But will the DPS system change the dangerous driving behaviors and make our roads safer? This is the question I to be analyzed.   

Background

The need to change Georgian traffic laws has been underscored by dismal road accident statistics in our country. According to the World Health Organization traffic-related deaths per 100,000 population in Georgia was 11.8 in 2013. This number, however, was calculated based on the old population estimates. Once re-calculated using the population figures from 2014 census, this statistics goes up to 15.7 – only Russia had a worse situation in Europe. 

The number of road accidents had a decreasing trend in 2008-2011, but in 2011-2016 the number of crashes and injuries increased from 4486 to 6939 and from 6638 to 9951 respectively. The number of deaths did not have any clear trend and varied between 867-511 per year. 

The main causes of serious (injury or death) road accidents are the following: 1) wrong maneuvering 2) exceeding speed limits, and 3) violation of overtaking rules. Driving under alcoholic and drug influence takes only fourth position in this list. 

The current penalty system, however, puts the strictest penalties and largest fines on driving under the influence. In this way, the system does not address the root causes of the problem according to priorities. 

Still, one of the most important reasons behind the growing number of crashes and serious injuries was a rapid growth of auto park in Georgia. In 2014 Georgia lost a large share of its re-export car market in Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Armenia. The cars which could no longer enter these markets were sold at heavy discounts at home. In 2014 the number of cars on the roads in Georgia increased by 50%. 

The correlation between the number of cars and the number of accidents and injuries is very high and positive  (0.98) in that period. 

Yet, the increase in the number of cars is not entirely to blame. The gradually declining road quality in the country is another bad news for road safety in Georgia. The road quality has been gradually decreasing since 2012 according to World Economic Forum data. For example, some sections of the East-West highway are considered high risk for driving. Kutaisi-Samtredia bypass road, with its incomplete drawings and absence of dividing barriers, became the place of many recent tragic traffic accidents (recently government decided to add two additional lanes to this part of highway). 

Other causes of declining road safety are the increasing share of right-hand drive cars, a high share of old and technically defective vehicles, lax driving test standards. 

Yet, in my opinion the risk-taking mentality of Georgian drivers is among the more important factor contributing to poor road safety. Here’s how the DPS system is supposed to change this:  

The mechanism DPS

Demerit point system in theory contributes to safer roads through three mechanisms:

1) Prevention of unsafe behavior through the risk of receiving penalty points, 

2) Selection and suspension of the most frequent offenders, 

3) Correction of risk behavior through an educative element in the demerit points system (not included in Georgian DPS). 

Despite the fact that such a system is used in 22 of 28 EU countries, its effectiveness is far from obvious. 

A study based on 24 effect measurements in various European and non-European countries shows that the initial effect of implementing DPS is a 15-20% reduction in crashes or fatalities and serious injuries, but the positive effects of the point systems last for a short period of time. (Castillo-Manzano and Castro-Nuno, 2012). “The initial fear instilled by the possibility that drivers could lose their license after just a few offences seems to gradually fade away when the DPS disappears from the news, when friends and family stop talking about it, and when police visibility is low” (Schagen and Machata, 2012).

Assessing DPS effectiveness in prevention of accidents and traffic violation in Canada, Redelmeier, Tibshirani & Evans (2003) found that only in the first period (more than a month) after having received a demerit point the crash rate of individual drivers dropped. After this period, the crash rate returned to the same levels as before. Furthermore, this effect was observed only for light and average offenders, while for serious offenders, there was no statistically significant effect on the crash rate. 

Evaluating the immediate impact of DPS on driving manner of drivers in Al Ain - the fourth largest city in United Arab Emirates, Arif Mehmood (2010) found that DPS had no influence on speeding behavior of drivers due to the lack of sustained and visible enforcement.

DPS system in Georgia is expected to have even more limited effects on driving behavior due to its liberal approach and incompleteness: 

First, points will be meted out only for offences halted by the police, not for those that are automatically detected by cameras and speed radars. 

Second, 100 points allowance will be given for one year, which is a very short period. For example, in Australia the period is 3 years, in England and Wales - 4 years, in Germany – from 2.5 to 10 years depending on the severity of each committed offence. In Italy, points are assigned to a driver's license for the lifetime period. 

Third, in Georgia driver with revoked driving license will automatically receive his license after one year, or he can return it as soon as he passes a driving test. In most EU countries drivers who lose all points are suspended from driving from three months to three years and must take a new driving test.

Fourth, Georgian DPS system does not include the correction component (rehabilitation courses mainly for serious offenders). The purpose of such courses is to prevent recurrence by making participants more aware of the hazards. In some countries such driver improvement courses are obligatory (Netherlands), in others (Belgium, Switzerland) may result in the matter not being taken to court, or a driver may return the driving license more quickly, or fines may be lower. 

Recommendations 

Will Georgian version of DPS system create enough incentives for drivers to change their driving behavior? 

All the studies briefly mentioned above identified low enforcement of the law as the main cause of DPS ineffectiveness. Josef Montag (2013) evaluated introducing tougher punishments through the introduction of a demerit point system and a manifold increase in fines in Czech Republic implemented in 2006. While author found strong initial response to the new regulations – about 30% lower fatalities during the first three months, but the effect in the long-run was zero. At the same time, data revealed that resources allocated to enforcement were diminishing in terms of man-hours and the intensity of using speed guns. Since offenders react to expected fines which depend on the perceived probability to be caught, policy actions should be focused on increasing the perceived likelihood of being caught. 

To make a new DPS effective the existing law needs the following modifications: 

• Subtract points for offences that are automatically detected, not just for offences directly captured by police. 

• Set up special requirements for target groups. In many European countries penalty points are stricter for novice drivers, as they represent the most risky group of drivers.

• For those with points close to zero, driver improvement courses should be offered. Similarly, rehabilitation courses should be a condition for drivers to receive their license back.

• Provide effective traffic monitoring system through more active use of camera enforcement - increase number of fixed speed cameras, introduce mobile speed cameras and section/average speed control. Austria, Sweden and Belgium could be considered as a benchmark. 

• Maintain communication about the DPS and related enforcement at regular intervals. Increasing awareness of traffic rules in addition to rule violation in order to promote a social norm. 

• Provide public information on safety effects (and targets) as well as on the proportion of drivers with points and revoked licenses. 

P.S. Yesterday (28.04.2017), while I was driving to Tbilisi Mall, a serious car accident happened just 30-40 meters in front of me. Cars were badly damaged, but fortunately, passengers and drivers did not receive serious injuries. 

Let’s respect others’ and our lives! Make haste slowly!