Traffic psychologist: Estonia has stalled on solutions to traffic problems

Traffic in Tallinn.
Traffic in Tallinn. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

Over the years, a number of proposals based on scientific research and data collected by speed cameras, have been made to Estonian to politicians and officials to help improve road safety. However, according to traffic psychologist Gunnar Meinhard, there is either no ability or will to do anything with this data.

Speaking on the "Vikerhommik" radio show, Meinhard said, that road safety can still be improved mainly with the help of scientific explanations and research.

"Measuring speed does not have a direct effect by itself, but is just the first step toward influencing traffic. In developed countries, there is the method of 'fixation', and the question is not where the data goes, but what is done with it," Meinhard said, adding that nowadays it is also possible to collect speed camera data in ways that mean no one is inconvenienced.

However, the main focus is still on what should be done with the data, or how it can be used to influence patterns of driving behavior. "Simply fixing one offence or the other doesn't usually bring about any major changes in a person's behavior," said the traffic psychologist.

Meinhard recalled, that when a new traffic law was being developed in Estonia in 2010 and speed cameras were being installed, there was also a discussion about the need to implement different systems in order to deal with those people caught committing traffic offenses.

"However, the view of the high level officials was that, no, first you have to get the cameras working somehow, and then other things can be done later. Now, twelve years have gone by and we are still talking about exactly the same thing," Meinhard said.

"Now we are taking the second step, which involves adding another layer of measurement capabilities in there. But these different methods, which have been discussed in many, many programs, lots of seminars and lots of conferences, nobody is doing anything about them. This shows that there may be a lack of competence in Estonia to deal with road safety in a meaningful way," he added.

"It's easy to just put up automatic (systems) and hope the traffic will be okay. But (in reality) it's not that simple."

In Estonia, speed cameras are used to punish the 'car.' However, Meinhard pointed out, that in dozens of other countries where cameras have been in place for a long time, it is the people behind the wheel who are caught and punished. The psychologist said, that it is also important to think abut this aspect of the law, adding that it is not that difficult to find out who was actually behind the wheel at the time when a vehicle is speeding vehicle, in order to then deal with those individuals.

Based on examples from the rest of the world, only between three and five percent of traffic offenders escape undetected, an amount that is always likely to remain more or less the same. However, if 90-95 percent offenders are caught, then that would be a positive step. The question remains however, what to do with those caught violating traffic rules.

In Estonian, there has also been talk for many years of introducing a system whereby points would deducted from offenders' drivers' licenses. Similar approaches have been in use in a number of other countries for decades, with noticeable effects.

In Meinhard's view, it would for instance, be possible to develop much more effective models than point-deduction systems through employing mathematical modelling techniques. However, he believes it comes down to the question of whether there is the desire to do something like that or not.

"In this context, I've had quite a few conversations with senior police officials. There have also been some scientific suggestions as to how it might be possible to begin modelling in a much more sophisticated way than the point deduction system. Formulas can be used to predict when people will offend," Meinhard explained, while acknowledging that there are a lot of nuances involved, including data protection laws, which would provide barriers to the application of this kind of information.

"Certain things seem to be possible to do in Estonia and certain things do not. It's a question of how someone's imagination works in the state apparatus at the moment and what options or aspirations they hope to realize," said the traffic psychologist.

Meinhard was then asked what he would do if he were in the position of a decision maker such as Minister of Climate Kristen Michal (Reform) to change traffic culture in Estonia. The psychologist answered, that since it is such a broad area, with so many different nuances, there is no magic wand that could be used to solve all the issues in one go.

"It is probably still sensible to take things calmly, carry out studies and draw the right conclusions from them, in order to make the right decisions. The solutions that we come up with need to be sensible, modern, innovative and so on," he said.

"Fantastic things can be done in Estonia, but somehow everything is stagnating. Everybody says there is a problem, but at national level there is not much movement. And that's putting it mildly," Meinhard added.


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Editor: Michael Cole

Source: Vikerhoomik, interview by Janek Luts and Margit Kilumets

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