Saturday, June 26, 2004

The Speed Limit

Why is it, on just about any road or highway, the posted speed limit is usually about 10-15 mph below the actual flow of traffic? If the speed limit is 55, traffic is moving at 65. If the speed limit is 60, traffic is moving at 70. If an approaching curve has a sign that says “Slow to 40”, you know you can take it at 50. If an exit ramp says 35mph, you know you’ll be fine at 45.

Speed limits are probably the most commonly broken laws in the country. And it’s pretty safe to say, the powers that be don’t really care. Oh, if you go 90 in a 60, they’ll care. But if you go 75 they won’t. My point today is that it’s time to rethink our speed limits. We need speed limits with a modern understanding of road safety and that accurately reflect what truly is and isn’t acceptable for today’s drivers.

Any expert will tell you, (or at least the ones I’ve seen on TV) it’s not speeding that kills people, it’s speed variance. If you’ve got a busy highway and people are randomly driving between 55 and 85, that’s a recipe for trouble. But if everyone was going 80, that’s a much safer road.

My car, a very basic and common Toyota Camry, can cruise comfortably and safely at 80 or 85. It can even cruise comfortably at 90 or 95, given the right road and visibility. That shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. It’s been almost 30 years since the national “55 mph speed limit” was a popular cause. “55 saves lives” was the slogan. At the time we had a fuel crisis and therefore a good reason to promote a more fuel efficient speed. But in the 21st century several things have changed:

1) Today’s cars are more fuel efficient at higher speeds
2) Today’s cars handle better at higher speeds
3) Today’s roads are built better and are appropriately banked for higher speeds.

Drivers know that traffic can move comfortably and safely at 75. The cops know it. We all know it. So posting the speed limit at 60, for whatever technical reason, makes zero sense. The reckless driver sees that everyone is breaking the speed limit by at least 10mph, and therefore feels justified in breaking it by 20 or 30. Meanwhile, grandpa over in the right lane wants to observe the strict letter of the law, and so he’s going 10mph slower than everyone else. So you end up with speed variance, and an unsafe road.

Here’s the answer, in my opinion. Set up some cameras. Clock the actual average speed on a particular road. Say on the interstate it’s 75. Now add 5mph and Bam! There’s your speed limit. Now enforce the hell out that speed limit. If someone goes 81, you pull them over. Here’s the beauty:

1) Hypothetically, there’s no maximum. If you’re in nowheresville, Nebraska, and traffic can move comfortably at 95, then the speed limit can be 100. It’s all based on what the road can safely accommodate.
2) Currently people break the speed limit all the time, but only get ticketed if they exceed it by an amount that only the cops know and keep secret. Under the Rowsdower plan, the speed limit is actually enforced, and therefore reckless driving can be successfully deterred.
3) On average, traffic will move faster under my plan, since the net effect will be raising a lot of speed limits. Faster traffic nationwide means more efficient commerce nationwide.

Don’t give me a speech about safety. Look at France. Look at Germany. They manage to drive quickly without getting killed. Hell, look at Montana. They have a unique no-speed-limit system and you don’t hear about it being a problem.

Cars and roads are only going to keep getting better-performing and safer. It’s time to rethink the speed limit.

1 comment:

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