A few days ago as I watched traffic policemen pull over a bemused driver near the Sopetrad petrol station, I found myself mulling on the complex dance between law enforcement and law evasion.
Rwanda’s traffic policemen are a regular feature on our roads, day and night. They tend to be friendly and fair, and their refusal to accept bribes is legendary.
However there is always plenty of going beneath the surface. The traffic policeman’s job is to ensure that our roads don’t descend into mad max- style carnage. In this context, their primary purpose is obvious- to catch drivers violating traffic regulations.
But the traffic cops’ role extends beyond merely nabbing offenders on the road. Their very presence is presumably intended to act as deterrence to drivers who might be tempted to break the rules.
Its’ one of the cardinal aims of any kind of enforcement mechanism- to act as a highly visible deterrent to others. And by stopping cars in what appears to be a random manner, they reason that the deterrence is magnified in the eyes of the public.
If a driver is overspeeding or driving recklessly then randomness doesn’t come into the picture, but if often does if a driver does not have a license or is intoxicated.
But the interplay between deterrence and randomness is an interesting one. If traffic policemen stopped drivers on a completely random basis, the rate at which they catch offenders would probably plunge.
They need to look for clues in either the drivers’ face, or the state of his car or dozens of other things they could look out for to increase their chances. Of course by the time it hits around 10pm in the evening, pulling over drivers becomes a lot less random, especially on the weekends.
But ultimately pulling drivers over is a largely random affair.
How does that change the behavior of would-be offenders? If you are driving without a license, then the seemingly random nature of being pulled over might not offer sufficient deterrence to keep you off the road.
The driver would figure that he can take his chances since his odds of being pulled over are equivalent to those who have the proper documentation (although of course the sanctions would apply disproportionately to that driver).
The driver can even improve his odds because traffic policemen tend to be in roughly the same places on most days. Once their behavior becomes predictable in this way, the offending drivers can ‘beat the system.’
And what of the interplay between traffic policemen and those who drink and drive? The traffic cops would assume that if they regularly pull over cars late at night-mainly on weekends- and either fine or imprison drunk drivers, then the rational response from most drivers would be to either cut down on their drinking or create an alternate arrangement of transport to get them back home after a night on the town.
However the desire to have a good night out despite the risks can often override the deterrence provided by traffic policemen. In this case, drivers will then rely on the fact that-as mentioned in the previous paragraph- the policemen tend to be situated in the same places most of the time and they will then find alternate routes.
Should this prove ineffective, then people will simply get drunk much earlier than they normally would, and try to get home earlier. There will still be drunk-driving, but at much earlier hours than the police would normally anticipate.
It’s interesting to ponder this dance between drivers and the police and the way deterrence and enforcement meet incentives and the realities of day-to-day living. It is a cat and mouse game with no real winners. Strategy is king.
Minega Isibo is a lawyer