By Lyndel Bates and Levi Anderson

This brief is based on the following paper:

Bates, L. & Anderson, L. (online first) Young drivers, deterrence theory and punishment avoidance: A qualitative exploration, Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice.

What problem is your research designed to address? Why is it significant?

Young drivers have higher crash rates when compared with older drivers (Blackman et al., 2008; Al Reesi et al., 2015 & Greydanus, 2018). They also commit offences on the road with lower numbers of young drivers reporting being caught by police when compared to those who indicate offending. Enforcement is a key mechanism used to alter driver behaviour (Bates et al., 2012; Castillo-Manzano et al., 2019). Punishment avoidance occurs when a person commits an offence but is not punished for it. It increases the likelihood of offending because, for rational people, it decreases the perceptions regarding the certainty and severity of punishment (Stafford and Warr, 1993). This study explores the role of punishment avoidance in young driver offending.

How did you conduct your research?

Participants in this study were recruited through local community and university social media pages as well as using local university announcements. They were aged between 17 years of age (Queensland) and 18 years of age (Victoria) and 25. All participants held a provisional (Queensland) or probationary (Victoria) licence that allowed them to drive unsupervised. Eleven focus groups were held in both metropolitan and regional locations in Queensland (45.45%) and Victoria (54.55%). Participants were asked about their perceptions of police enforcement of road laws, the likelihood of being caught by police and whether parents had the ability to influence them and their adherence to the law. Of the 31 participants, 45.16% were male. An inductive thematic analysis was used to discover the common themes among the transcripts with regards to punishment avoidance.

What are your major findings?

The focus groups suggest that drivers experience punishment avoidance through three different mechanisms: (a) active punishment avoidance; (b) direct and vicarious punishment avoidance of police enforcement and (c) parental punishment avoidance. Active punishment avoidance occurs when young drivers deliberately and consciously take actions to avoid police and their operations in order to circumvent punishment. One way the young drivers did this was by removing the ‘P’ plates when indicated their licence status to police. Another way they actively avoided punishment was to select the roads to avoid routes they believed were commonly policed. In rural areas, young drivers also relied on the close relationships formed between the community and police.

Direct punishment avoidance occurred when the young driver had engaged in illegal driving behaviour, been caught by police and yet the officer had made the decision to not punish the offender. If the participant had witnessed or heard about this type of scenario occurring to another individual, they had experienced indirect punishment avoidance. Both active punishment avoidance and direct or vicarious punishment avoidance appear to encourage young drivers to continue to engage in illegal driving behaviours.

Even when young drivers are punished by police, in some cases parents can facilitate punishment avoidance. For instance, some parents may assume responsibility for camera detected offences in order to spare their child from the financial costs or demerit points that are recorded on the driver’s licence. It appeared that parents would help their novice drivers avoid some, but not all, punishments. For instance, they may only do this once.

What does your research mean for policy and practice?

Given that punishment avoidance appears to increase the likelihood of future road offending (Watling et al., 2010; Szogi et al., 2017; Truelove et al., 2017; Armstrong et al., 2018), it is important to limit both the actual and perceived punishment avoidance that occurs. For instance, the perceptions regarding the certainty of being caught could be increased through the use of public media campaigns combined with traffic enforcement. There may also be a need to use an appropriate intensity level of enforcement to ensure drivers perceive that they cannot avoid punishment. It is also important for police to follow through with a punishment when they detect a traffic offence. Parents should not role model punishment avoidance behaviours nor should they facilitate the avoidance of punishment for the offending behaviour of their children.


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Bates, L., Soole, D., and Watson, B. (2012). ‘The Effectiveness of Traffic Policing in Reducing Traffic Crashes.’ In Prenzler, T. (ed.), Policing and Security in Practice: Challenges and Achievements. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 90–109.

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Truelove, V., Freeman, J., Szogi, E. et al. (2017). ‘Beyond the Threat of Legal Sanctions: What Deters Speeding Behaviours?.’ Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour 50: 128–136.

Watling, C., Palk, G., Freeman, J., and Davey, J. (2010). ‘Applying Stafford and Warr’s Reconceptualization of Deterrence Theory to Drug Driving: Can It Predict Those Likely to Offend?.’ Accident Analysis & Prevention 42: 452–458.