This is part 3 in a series on traffic enforcement. Read part 1 on DC’s proposed fines and part 2 about how traffic cameras could be more swift, certain, and fair.

Though raising traffic fines might not deter lawbreaking, people often feel a harsh punishment is appropriate anyway for the most egregious acts. Here’s one man who was about the worst driver ever. What if he had to spend 23 years making roads safer rather than sitting in jail?

A car crash. Not the one we’re talking about. Photo by IceBone on Flickr.

One common response to criticism about the proposed higher fines was that they will also take the most dangerous drivers off the streets. Suspending a license for a repeat offender is the sort of punishment that should be much more common. Sadly, many jurisdictions are reluctant to take away driving privileges because people have few alternatives. But in DC, there are alternatives to driving.

Beyond the valuable tool of license suspension, however, greater punishments may also not achieve much. It’s understandable to feel that if people are driving 55 in a 30 mph zone, or if they door or hit cyclists, they deserve anything that’s coming to them. They’ve done something obviously very dangerous and/or done actual damage. Why not punish these people severely?

While it may make us feel better, we just know that it doesn’t actually stop the next person. It didn’t work for the “tough on crime” efforts of the 1990s, and while traffic safety isn’t the same thing, but there’s also not a lot of reason to believe this approach will work here.

To think about this more, let’s look at one of the most egregious examples out there, a former Google sous chef named Nicola Bucci. I worked at Google, but didn’t know him personally; he worked there after I’d moved to New York, but I know many people who did know him.

In 2006, Bucci hit another car and killed two children while speeding in the wrong lane of a road on a hill in Fairfield, California, northeast of San Francisco.

In case this doesn’t make him seem unsympathetic enough, Bucci had actually killed two people before, on I-80 in the Sierra Nevadas in 1994, where he fell asleep at the wheel. He’d been convicted of vehicular manslaughter and done some jail time then.

A jury convicted Bucci of murder for these two deaths, and now he’s in prison serving a 23-year sentence.

Is this just?

In some sense, that feels good, since he’s killed more people than some serial killers. But other than the possibility of taking him off the road so he personally doesn’t kill anyone else, the roads aren’t getting any safer because of it.

Has the press around the case in California (some articles here and there) made people drive less when tired? Probably not much. Is there anything about Bucci’s experience that is reminding California drivers day in and day out about the dangers of driving tired? No.

Clearly, Bucci should not be allowed to drive again, but his privileges should have been revoked after his first conviction. If he had to spend 23 years going around to every driver’s ed class in the state telling his story or something, that would achieve quite a lot more.

Oh, and the state’s road engineers were responsible, too. Another jury in 2011 found Caltrans 35% responsible for the crash because of the road’s unsafe design. The state had to pay $29 million to the victims, and only then did it put in a divider.

Meanwhile, Bucci’s family is suffering, and some of his former coworkers have been trying to help him get his sentence overturned. Those friends are not working to help educate people about the lessons of Bucci’s experience to make the roads safer. Ideally, they would be.

It’s understandable to want to punish people who do terrible things, but people drive tired, don’t yield to buses, speed, and park in bike lanes all the time. To make an example of one or two of the worst offenders just lets society feel better and then ignore all of the lessons of the incident.

We need better road design, lower speed limits, license revocations, and “certain, swift, and fair” enforcement to make roads safe. If jail time or (getting back to part 1) high fines get people to change behavior, then by all means let’s do that, but absent evidence, it seems like a way to feel that we’re working on the problem instead of actually solving it.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.