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Status Report, Vol. 39, No. 2 | February 7, 2004 Subscribe

Prior violations often omitted from public records

Drivers found guilty of DWI and other traffic violations such as speeding had the violations withheld from their public records up to 50 percent of the time, largely because of court-approved diversion programs such as traffic school or probation before judgment. This is the main finding of a new Institute study that followed thousands of drivers through the court systems in four jurisdictions in three states.

"Insurers, employers, and others rely on public driver records to determine the future crash risks of particular drivers, and the number of prior violations is one of the best predictors of future risks," says Anne McCartt, senior research analyst at the Institute and lead author of the study. Previous research has indicated that crash rates for drivers with two or more violations are about twice as high as the rates for drivers without any moving violations.

"But for the records to be useful in predicting drivers' future crash risks, those records have to accurately reflect all of a driver's prior violations," McCartt points out. "What our new research shows is that the public records often don't do this."

Institute researchers examined DWI and common traffic violations like speeding and running signals for a random sampling of tickets issued during 2000 across Maryland, two counties in Florida, and one Indiana county. Using a case-study approach, the researchers followed citations through the courts to posting on public driver records.

The percentage of citations resulting in convictions varied among the jurisdictions from 27 to 90 percent for DWI and from 60 to 83 percent for the other traffic violations. These ranges largely reflect differences in the application of diversion programs. In Maryland the primary diversion method is probation before judgment — a defendant is found guilty but the judgment is withheld and can be expunged contingent on good behavior.

Of the cases tracked in Maryland, 27 percent of DWI citations resulted in convictions, while 20 percent of drivers cited for this offense and 21 percent who were cited for other violations received probation before judgment. In contrast, in Tippecanoe County, Indiana, none of the DWI cases and only 7 percent of cases involving other violations were addressed with diversion programs.

In Florida, where the primary diversion is traffic school, 35 percent of drivers charged with violations other than DWI took advantage of this option. Traffic school isn't an option in Florida DWI cases. In each jurisdiction, almost all guilty verdicts that didn't result in diversions were recorded on driver records. But among the drivers who opted for, or were directed to, diversion programs by the courts, only a few ended up with citations on their records. Violators who attended traffic schools typically got reduced penalties and could keep the violations off of their records despite evidence that attending such schools doesn't reduce future crash risk.

"Diversion programs like traffic school not only fail to reduce crash risk but also undermine the predictive value of driver records and can actually harm the overall safety picture by preventing the accumulation of violations on the records," McCartt says. When violations don't accumulate on the records, tougher sanctions such as license suspension aren't triggered.

Education doesn't cut violators' risk

Some programs that target drivers with poor records can cut future violations and crashes, but court-initiated education isn't one of them, an Institute-sponsored study has found.

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