Why speeding fines don’t work

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Jan Martens Published at

I’ll admit it. When driving, I don’t always stick to the speed limit. And as a consequence, every once in a while a fine lands on my doormat, complete with speed camera evidence that I was driving (typically) around 10% faster than permitted. My first reaction is always to try to recall being in the area where the misdemeanour took place, to accept that it must have been me. Then I just pay the fine and move on. The episode has done nothing to make me alter my driving habits.

There is, however, one stretch of road where I do make sure I never speed.

About two years ago, the limit on this particular stretch was lowered while I was away. I wasn’t aware of the change. Upon my return, I drove that stretch at the same speed I always had and was pulled over by the traffic police. We had a discussion, during which the officers gave me feedback on various aspects of my driving style. Driving speed: not good – although in line with the previous limit, I had just driven a lot faster than the new one. Safety aspects such as keeping a safe distance and using indicators when changing lanes: well done.

The result: In return for a warning instead of a fine, I promised not to speed again on that section of road. And to this day I still haven’t. My behaviour was actually changed.

So what is there to learn from this little story?

Automatically issued fines vs personally delivered warning

If we compare the two scenarios – (a) automatically generated fine (b) personally delivered warning – three key differentiators become clear:

Automatically generated fine Personally delivered warning
1 Lack of clarity of why driving habit needs to be changed – leading to lack of conviction to do so Clarity on the desired outcome, and ensuring it becomes a shared desire
2 Delayed feedback on undesired behaviour – association with the event is very loose Feedback on undesired behaviour is immediate – association with the event is very strong
3 Intention is to punish Intention is to change behavior

The automatically generated fine punishes the driver financially, but is ineffective in changing behaviour due to being so disconnected with the event that triggered it. Whereas the personally delivered warning hits home because the associations are much stronger and clearer.

Translating these principles into workplace leadership

  • Never waste an opportunity to explain where the company is going and actively engage in discussions, so reference points to shared desired outcomes are instilled.
  • Regularly provide feedback on behaviour – both desirable and undesirable – at the point you observe it. Avoid discussing observations made in the past, talk about the here and now. A Gemba walk is a perfect setting.
  • When discussing undesired behaviour, instead of focussing on disciplinary actions, use this time to explain why it is hindering achievement of the shared desired outcome. This is also potentially an opportunity to learn why the undesired behaviour is taking place.

Despite my awareness, I do still pick up speeding tickets from time to time, even though I don’t enjoy wasting money and have no particular desire to be pulled over again. My behavioural change is not complete. This translates into workplace leadership via a fourth point:

  • Pick your battles! But do so consistently. Start changing behaviours in the part of your organisation or department that is a business priority.


Jan Martens is Senior Business Process Excellence Consultant at R&G Global Consultants in The Netherlands

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