Raise the Speed Limit June 16, 2006Posted by federalist in Government Regulation, Social Politics, Transportation.
You can run with the herd your whole life and never get caught. The odds are in your favor, but if a predator is on the prowl someone will get taken down. It might be you. Life on the plains, or reality on America’s highways?
Everyone knows that on a clear day the flow of traffic on a modern highway is far in excess of the posted speed limit. Which raises the question: What is the point of our speed limits if nobody follows them?
The cynical answer is that speed limits exist to generate revenue. If everyone thinks it’s reasonable to drive 75, set the speed limit at 55. When local government coffers start to dry up, send the police out with quotas: Pull cars over until they’ve written enough tickets to fund the next quarter’s budget. It’s a negative lottery that everyone seems willing tolerate.
Why don’t people get tired of paying taxes this way? Unfortunately there are also plenty of nanny groups ready to argue against raising the speed limit because “speed kills.” And we can’t argue with that. Lower speeds would almost certainly result in fewer fatalities.
Of course, if we want to eliminate highway fatalities we should set the speed limit at zero. But our society is willing to tolerate some risk. After all, we allow people to consume alcohol even though it is routinely abused and directly contributes to horrific drunk driving deaths. We allow people to dig swimming pools even though many children drown to death in them. We allow people to build tall homes and buildings even though people die falling from them. And we allow people to operate motor vehicles at speeds that can kill.
Motor vehicles can be deadly at any speed. Every marginal increment in the speed limit increases the potential danger. So there will probably be more fatalities if the average speed on a road is 65 than if it is 55. But if 65 is unacceptable, than why is 55? 45 would be safer, and we would save even more lives by forcing everyone to amble along the freeway at 35.
Where does that magic number, 55 mph, come from? In the 1970’s fuel crisis the government seized the initiative. At the time many cars achieved maximum fuel efficiency at 55. But not many 1970’s-era cars are still on the road. Today’s cars have transmissions with taller gears, capable of efficient cruising at higher speeds. Modern cars are also more aerodynamic, and incorporate more standard safety mechanisms than were available in any car from a generation ago. Furthermore, modern highways are much safer, with extensive energy-absorbing guardrails and energy-deflecting center concrete dividers. If 55 was safe and efficient a generation ago, then a speed of comparable safety and efficiency would be significantly higher now.
Evidently the vast majority of motorists feel justified driving faster than the official speed limit. This informal speed consensus varies with the road and conditions but, as anyone who drives today knows, it often reaches 85 or 90 mph on the best highways. Is that unsafe? Well, it’s less safe than going 70 and more safe than going 100. In any case, it is not without precedent, since many foreign countries sanction the operation of passenger cars at those speeds.
The question all of these American speeders must be asking is, “Why do we maintain this charade of a speed limit?” That convoy of cars cruising along the left lane of a 3-lane divided highway in clear weather at 85mph shouldn’t feel obligated to slam on the brakes when passing a police cruiser. Speed should not be used as a surrogate for safety. Highways would be much safer if police concerned themselves exclusively with the reckless drivers – those weaving through lanes without signaling, tailgating, or obstructing the flow of traffic in passing lanes.
Drivers or cars uncomfortable at higher speeds should stay out of the left lanes. Commercial vehicles and trucks should also be held to tighter limits, in recognition of their greater mass and reduced maneuverability. (In Europe, commercial vehicles are individually certified for specific speeds, and they must prominently display those speed limits on stickers.)
As anyone who has driven in Europe knows, rules like the ones suggested here produce highways that are safe enough for most people’s comfort. It’s time we ended the charade and set reasonable speed limits on our highways.