The Chief Made Me Do It! Stopping Deviant Behaviors

Tailboard Talk: The Chief Made Me Do It! Stopping Deviant Behaviors

By Dane Carley and Craig Nelson

A person we will call “John” works at a fire station about four miles from a freeway. There are stoplights every two or three blocks on this stretch of road, and they are not timed well; drivers often catch most of them when they’re red. One day, John was running late for work, so he drove 50 miles per hour (mph) down this road, which is 10 mph over the posted speed limit. John hit all green lights between the freeway and the fire station. When he left work and drove home, he did so at 50 mph and, again, all the lights were green from the freeway to the fire station.

John takes this freeway a lot, so he has become increasingly familiar with its traffic patterns. He has noticed that many others drive 50 mph on this road, mostly in the mornings when everyone is heading toward the freeway from their neighborhood near the fire station. John also realized that many people who live in that neighborhood also drive 50 mph on this freeway instead of the posted 40 mph speed limit to increase the odds of catching all green lights. These people pass police officers occasionally, but no one slows down because it is rare that a police officer will pull over a car driving 50 mph. It’s as if the police officers have figured out the same thing about the stoplights.

John often wonders why city engineers did not “time” the lights to stay green for those who are driving 40 mph if that was the speed they determined as being safe for that stretch of road. Or, if 50 mph is a safe driving speed, why didn’t the engineers change the speed limit to 50 mph? Is there some unknown political pressure on the engineers regarding a 40 mph speed limit even though they know the road is safe with a 50 mph speed limit? Many (if not all) of you can relate to such a situation in your city. This actually serves as a great example to help illustrate the term “normalization of deviance.” Imagine that John and others from those neighborhoods around the station are members of your fire department. The police are the “officers” (captains and battalion chiefs) of your fire department. The traffic engineers are the “chief officers” (assistant chiefs, deputy chiefs, and chief).

The people who learned that they could catch all green lights by driving 50 mph did so in a couple of ways. First, they simply tried it. In John’s case, it was because he was running late. It worked well for him, so he kept doing it. Second, word of mouth. In other words, other drivers started doing the same, and they eventually told their friends. As more people realized that this way of driving worked—even though it was illegal—they kept doing it.

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