Sticking It to the Scofflaw
Time is money. But for drivers who try to save time by speeding through the streets of Finland, the money they'll owe can be staggering.
Case in point: In 2004 the heir to a family sausage fortune was caught driving 50 miles per hour in a 25 mph zone in Helsinki. His fine was 170,000 euros, then worth about $204,000.
The reason for such astronomical fines lies in Finland's lofty ideals of egalitarianism. The nation imposes graduated traffic fines based on the wealth of the lawbreaker as well as the severity of the offense. This system, adopted in 1921, is intended to ensure "equal severity of the fine for offenders of different income and wealth," according to a paper by Tapio Lappi-Seppala, director of the National Research Institute of Legal Policy. Traffic fines must hurt the millionaire as much as the minimum-wage worker.
"Dayfine." Until recently, fines were based on gross annual salary. But Finland takes nearly half its citizens' earnings in taxes, so in 1999 the law was changed to base fines on net income after taxes. The calculation includes many variables (such as the number of dependents and the value of real-estate holdings). But basically a police officer comes up with a figure called a "dayfine" equal to roughly half the offender's daily disposable income. The officer then multiplies that amount by a number between 1 and 120-reflecting the severity of the offense.
A typical drunk-driving charge might be worth 40 dayfines. An offender earning about $2,000 a month would be fined roughly $1,050; a person earning roughly $7,900 a month would pay closer to $5,000 for the same offense. Police used to rely on honesty to learn their income; now they can use cellphones to tap into tax records.
While some have protested what they see as exorbitant fines, surveys show that 80 percent of Finns think the practice is fair. "The system is very democratic," says Heikki Summala, professor of traffic psychology at the University of Helsinki. "Huge fines are not common, and the people who get them generally accept it, because they have the money to pay for it."
There's no evidence that the dayfine system reduces the number of traffic violations. Still, fines help fund Finnish services like free education and healthcare for all.
This story appears in the March 26, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.