During a long drive home from University last week, my brother and I were parked in the middle lane of the motorway at a solid 80, watching far more expensive and beautiful cars* speed past us at speeds well in excess of 100. It got us talking about the skewed and regressive effect of speeding fines. The standard fine is (I think) £60 for going over the speeding limit. For someone earning £12,000, this translates to about 25% of their weekly budget. Given the costs of food, rent, heating and the like, the £60 is likely to have a fairly major impact on this person’s week. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s unfair – I’m generally very liberal, but I have little time for road offenses. Nonetheless if we compare this 25% with the proportional effect of the fine on someone who earns £120,000, which would be about 2.5% of their week’s income, we see an uncomfortable discrepancy.
If the effect of the fine is to act as a deterrent, then it would appear that the poor are subject to a far more harsh deterrent than the rich. It might be objected that everyone, rich or poor, has only 12 points on their license to fill before it is revoked, but this isn’t enough. The poor then have a double deterrent whilst the rich can ignore the financial fine and speed three times with limited repercussions (insurance costs notwithstanding). It might be said that the points deter the rich whilst the money deters the poor, but this would hardly be fair. The rich are only undeterred by the fines because they are so low. If the fines were proportional to one’s income, then rich and poor would both have a double deterrent; far more fair.
Really even this proposition is very conservative. If our £120,000 person were fined £600 to the poor person’s £60 then it would be strictly proportional, but the marginal effect of £60 to someone who takes home £240 is far greater than the £600 which would leave Mr. Rich with £1800 that week. The poor person might have to forfeit heating, whilst any sacrifices the rich person might have to make will be far less disruptive. It’s a basic liberal principle that the punishment should be proportional to the crime, but to this we should add the proviso that proportionality must be relative to the situation of the offender. We have this, to an extent, in our courts. Why not on our roads?
* Not that a Vauxhall Corsa isn’t beautiful, but we’re in the realm of the subjective here.