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July 24, 2003

Always Drive the Speed Limit


There is something you should know before you get in a car with me. I have been officially designated as a bad driver by the State of California. I got a letter a few weeks ago from our friendly Department of Motor Vehicles pointing out that I had received four speeding tickets in the past year. They are keeping an eye on me.

Now, I’ll grant you that I’ve been driving and speeding for 31 years. What I haven’t done over those years is harm anyone. (Okay, in three decades I had one accident that was my fault—I was following a 16-year-old driver through a yellow light when she was suddenly gripped with a bad conscience and jammed on the brakes; I ended up tapping her rear bumper. Minimal damage and no injuries.) But as the recipient of many, many speeding tickets I have made a handsome contribution to the financial well being of countless auto insurance companies. They smile toothily as they see me coming, knowing that they will be able to charge me premium rates without having to pay out for damages.

In California they have an institution known as drivers’ school, which allows you to keep one ticket off your record every few years by doing roughly eight hours of penance. Twenty years ago I took advantage of this and attended a course taught by the former head of the L.A.P.D. motorcycle squad, the main arm of traffic enforcement. This guy looked and sounded like George Kennedy, and he had a very persuasive spiel. To wit, that under his regime, the tickets handed out by his minions had the very specific purpose of negatively reinforcing behavior that was leading to serious accidents. He would look at his police department maps, spot where fatalities were occurring repeatedly, analyze what violation of the law was causing these fatalities, and then consistently ticket that behavior to educate the driving public. It sounded great.

The only problem is, over the intervening years, when I have questioned the officers handing me tickets—“Been having a lot of accidents around here, officer?”— the gendarmes tend to get a sort of glazed look in their eyes. Their answer, of course, when pressed is "no." Most traffic enforcement as it has been practiced on me can only be described as “lifestyle” enforcement. To wit, the locals have complained about speeding in front of their homes, it lowers their property values.

On occasion, I have been the victim of out-and-out “speed traps”—like the one I blundered into while driving on a rural highway near the California coast. I guess my speeding must have endangered the local grape crop growing on the hillsides, since there was no foot or auto traffic to speak of and the police officer reported no recent rash of accidents as he very politely wrote me up.

But I’m just a self-justifying loser, right? (I suppose that goes without saying.) Nonetheless, googling for something the other day I came across an interesting column from the Honolulu Star Bulletin called "The Facts of the Matter." The author, Richard Brill, pointed out that:

The Federal Highway Administration conducted a seven-year study in which speed limits were varied at 100 locations in 22 states and the resulting traffic flow analyzed. It concluded that speed limits have little or no effect on the average speed of traffic: " ... Raising posted speed limits by as much as 15 mph had little effect on motorists' speeds ... contrary to public perception, the data actually indicate that accident rates were reduced at sites where speed limits were raised."…The FHA study also found that the majority of speed limits are posted well below the average speed of traffic. They concluded that lowering speed limits below the 50th percentile does not reduce accidents, but does significantly increase driver violations of the speed limit. Conversely, raising the posted speed limits did not increase speeds or accidents. These facts suggest to some that speed limits have become largely irrelevant as a source of guidance to motorists and impractical as a threshold for enforcement purposes.

In fact, it appears, if my further reading on this topic is correct, that the accident rate actually correlates more closely with the variability of traffic speed on a road—that is, the difference in speed between the faster and slower drivers. This speed gap will, of course, be increased by setting artificially low speed limits.

Finally, I note, in passing, that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration only attributes around 30% of traffic fatalities to “speed-related causes” (a category in which they lump, by the way, “driving too slow,” “inattention” and “following too closely” with what you would ordinarily think of as “speeding”). Even if one accepts this number as valid, however, one might ask why speeding tickets are given out with such gusto, while many other forms of obviously dangerous behavior (like slowing down in traffic hundreds of yards before making a turn) are never ticketed.

Oh, by the way, you don’t really have to worry about me. I have learned my lesson and never exceed the posted speed limits by more than 3 miles per hour these days. I’m driving defensively—not in the sense of avoiding accidents, but in the sense of avoiding the police. I don’t want to enrich the auto insurance companies too much, you know. Of course, this behavior is clearly increasing the speed variability on the routes I travel, so I may be putting someone in danger, but you have to obey the law--right?



posted by Friedrich at July 24, 2003


I have a large axe to grind on this subject (not that I have ever been fined for speeding in a car - on my motorbike yes, but that's a different story!) In the UK the control of traffic is the universal refuge of all the socialist-communist public ownership politicos who no longer find any place in the Labour Party. They seek to direct the economic development of the country and effect widespread social engineering (and thereby destroy large element of choice and personal freedom) through every kind of transport measure, from pedestrianising town centres to taxing parking spaces to --- yes, draconian speed limit enforcement. They are helped in this by a massive engineering, consultancy, service provision, research, wholesale, retail, you-name-it industry which has sprung into existence to supply every regulation. Speed cameras are a great example. So is privatised parking enforcement. The Labour controlled councils (nearly all of urban Britain) relish all this, and the growth has been exponential. The ideological cutting edge is, of course, safety, and the political method is the organisation of "communities" to campaign for greater safety for themseleves and -- of course -- their children. Even so, there is widespread recognition that speed cameras are not a safety device but a revenue-raising strategy, and they are regularly set on fire by motorists who loathe them. Moreover, as you say, there is ample evidence that speeding does not play the part in accidents and road casualties that people simple-mindedly assume.

A few years ago I came across this excellent website, run single-handedly by a charmingly straightforward man from Northern Englands - lots of the pages are illuminating and many are funny:
Speed Limit.

This grim reading is the latest on speed limits from the UK Government (it refers to the White Paper "A New Deal for Transport" which gave rise to the Transport Act, a measure the aim of which is to plan and regulate every aspect of personal and commercial movement, by any and all means): New directions in speed management: a review of policy.

Of course, all this has just created a marked-based response, eg. Cyclops, UK Speed Cameras, and UK Speed Traps.

The Government uses all kinds of targets which local councils then employ to justify their schemes (and the taxes needed for them). No matter what the statistics say, they will demand more change -- rising accidents=need for more regulation, falling accidents=shows the success of measures taken to date. One thing never changes -- we all have to use bicycles, despite the complete impracticality of doing so. It's a policy dreamed up in Whitehall by bureaucrats who always travel at tax-payer expense by train or car! (Latest accident data: Road Casualties in Great Britain).

Posted by: Charlie B on July 24, 2003 6:06 AM

The worst car accident I ever had involved pulling out of a parking lot and into traffic, going maybe 10 mph, and getting slammed into by a motorcycle I never saw (behind another car), which was very much speeding (at least 45 in a 30 mph zone). But because I was pulling out, I was the "at fault" driver. They should have slowed down---they were the ones who got injured, not me, and I had major angst for a year until the insurance settled. Sometimes, driving too fast makes accidents really bad. (By the way---the two on the cycle turned out to be OK.)

However, I do agree that many speeding tickets seem to have nothing to do with safety and everything to do with padding the coffers of the jurisdiction.

Posted by: annette on July 24, 2003 12:42 PM

I suspect that the primary reason for ticketing speeding (and parking violations) at rates disproportionate to their actual danger is that there is little ambiguity. If the cop measures your speed at 15 mph above the posted limit, you are pretty much limited to questioning his equipment, his technique, or his honesty. None of these is likely to be successful in court.

Much higher risk behaviors like failing to yield when changing lanes or following too closely require both a subjective judgement by the officer and defense of that judgement in court. For example, these conviction or acquittal in these examples can revolve around "he said-she said" issues or how slippery the pavement was at the time of the ticket.

When the primary measure of a patrol officer is (and has been for decades) his productivity*, the result is ticketing unambiguous rather than important violations of the law.

*While police departments vehemently deny ticket quotas, when you talk to beat cops, they'll mention strong pressure to "keep their stats up." The question, of course, is "up to what?"

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on July 24, 2003 1:19 PM

Cars are safer and faster than they used to be, so why not push toward Autobahn style speed limits on the best highways? It would make the Great Plains a lot more livable if you could drive to both Chicago and Jackson Hole in five hours.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on July 24, 2003 5:00 PM

It's not about safety.

It's about fund-raising and power.

Posted by: Gil on July 24, 2003 5:11 PM

Ah... the many many happy hours I've spent combing through DOT stats. Speeding has nothing to do with accidents. Nothing. (Although, if you are going fast and have an accident, the accident will be much worse.)

Want to have some real fun? Look at what tickets were written for BEFORE radar guns, and after. Speeding can be scientifically proven (except that it can’t) so it’s easy to prove. That’s all. That’s it.

God damn it.

I’m really happy to be in Montana right now.

Posted by: j.c. on July 25, 2003 10:38 PM

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