June 13, 2005
There's speeding, and then there's speeding

We all already knew this, right?

Authorities patrolling U.S. highways tend to give motorists a cushion of up to 10 miles per hour above the speed limit before pulling them over, says a survey by a group of state traffic safety officials.

I've always heard that the unofficial speed limit on the highways is 7 MPH above what's stated, but that's close enough for these purposes. For sure, the flow of traffic pretty much anywhere you go is faster than the posted limits.

This practice creates an unsafe comfort level at high speeds and is a potential safety hazard, according to the report being released today by the Governors Highway Safety Association. The group found that 42 states allow drivers to regularly exceed the speed limit before they are stopped.

"This cushion truly exists across this country and in some cases is more than 10 mph above posted limits," said Jim Champagne, the association's chairman.

"Law enforcement needs to be given the political will to enforce speed limits and the public must get the message that speeding will not be tolerated," said Champagne, who also is executive director of the Louisiana Highway Safety Commission.

On the one hand, it's hard to argue that it's okay to break the law a little bit. On the other hand, I seriously doubt that the political will Jim Champagne speaks of exists. Part of the problem, and again I daresay this is something we all experience regularly, is that while you may be crusing along at (say) 70 in a 60 MPH zone, there's always a steady stream of drivers zipping past you. We feel safe with this lesser kind of violation because we know that it's those real speed demons who are flushing out the cops for the rest of us. Those are the people we expect to get busted, not ourselves, and I think most people get upset when they get nabbed because of this.

At current levels of highway patrol staffing, enforcement of speed limit laws is pretty much a crapshoot. The reason I believe most officers let the 70 MPH drivers go by is because they don't want to be on the shoulder writing a ticket for doing 70 while half a dozen cars doing 80 or more zoom by. They pick their spots and try to catch the most egregious offenders.

Now of course, states could choose to spend a bunch more money to hire highway patrol officers and crack down on speeding. For sure, there would be benefits to this, both in terms of reduced accident and fatality rates, and also probably in finding folks who've been evading warrants for other criminal activity. Does anyone really think this is going to happen? Can you even imagine a candidate for governor somewhere running with this as a plank in his or her platform?

Until someone shows me polling numbers that say otherwise, I believe this situation exists because most people are more or less okay with how it is right now. As with tolerance for drunk driving, public opinion can certainly change, and perhaps we'll start seeing MADD-like grassroots groups spring up to agitate against too-fast driving. All I'm saying is that I'm not holding my breath.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on June 13, 2005 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles | TrackBack

There are too many leadfeet for a MADD-like organization to spring up. Though truth be told, MADD has morphed into a modern-day prohibitionist movement anyway, and there's no real equivalent for something like speeding.

Absolute speed is probably less of a safety issue than the *differential* of speed among the traffic on the highway. So if you raise a speed limit from (say) 55 to 70, the main safety issue is that some folks still drive at 55-60 when everyone else is at 70-75. This often leads to unsafe lane changes which often lead to accidents.

Posted by: Tim on June 13, 2005 9:26 AM

My guess is that tailgating is still more significant that differentials. There are a whole lot of cars on the road up here that are closer together than the reaction time of the drivers....

Posted by: Danil on June 13, 2005 10:56 AM

"As with tolerance for drunk driving, public opinion can certainly change, and perhaps we'll start seeing MADD-like grassroots groups spring up to agitate against too-fast driving. All I'm saying is that I'm not holding my breath."

I wouldn't be so sure about that. I think if you put it to a national referendum, you would find more speed nuts wanting to turn the highways into the American Autobahn than you would people wanting to maintain the speed limit at 55/65 MPH. Then again, even the Autobahn now has speed limits in some areas (although I do recall as my plane was about to land in Frankfurt a few years ago seeing that the plane was traveling about 220 MPH, and the cars looked as if they were zipping by.).

Posted by: William Hughes on June 13, 2005 11:57 AM

William - I guess I didn't make myself clear. I agree that a MADD-like organization is unlikely to spring up, and precisely for the reason you cite. Most people think it's only the folks driving faster than they are who are really speeding. Very few of them would actually be happy with zero-tolerance enforcement.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on June 13, 2005 12:28 PM

I think there is another thing at work here too. There is the issue of who's measurement is more accurate. anyone who has ever put bigger tires on thier car than it came with can verify that the reading on your speedometer may not be all that accurate after such modifications. additionally, radar (and to a lesser extent, lidar) has it's own quirks that can cause the wrong surface to be "clocked". There is also the issue of when the device were calibrated last too. In order to weed out such nitpicky stuff that could get the ticket thrown out, I believe cops are instructed to make sure that the reading is high enough above the posted limit that there can be no possible way that measurement error is playing a role.

that and the fact that unless the ticket is for more than 10 MPH above the limit, the local municipality does not get a dime of the fine, it all goes to the state.

Posted by: Rorschach on June 13, 2005 1:27 PM

I doubt Texas has the worst drivers in the world, but it sure felt like it when I got here.

San Antonio drivers seem to be pathologically incapable of merging, and it's not uncommon to see someone who decides they're going to slow to get on the freeway STOP. Yes, because it'll be much easier to get up to speed from a dead stop... They also seem to think that four cars fit perfectly well into what I consider following distance, and if you aren't right on the tail of the guy in front of you, you're going too slow - never mind that you're moving the same speed as the guy in front of you.

What we need to do to reduce accidents has nothing to do with speed limits - people driving too slow on a freeway are just as big a threat as those going too fast. What's needed is to get beyond the sense of divine entitlement that a driver's license has become, and force people to show they're capable of driving.

Of course, we all know that'll never, ever happen. Which is just my long-winded, ranting way of agreeing with what Kuff says above, that the bad drivers are always everyone else.

Posted by: Buhallin on June 13, 2005 3:07 PM


Absolutely, positively correct. The problem with highway safety isn't driver speed, it's driver quality. How many times have you looked at the idiot next to you and that person is reading a book, putting on makeup, eating a full meal, talking on their cell phone, or quieting down the rugrats in the back. Or, even worse, just driving like crap--crossing three lanes of traffic to get onto the on-ramp, slowing down coming to a merge when speeding up is the right decision, making a left turn from the right lane, etc. Drivers going 100 MPH in a 65 MPH zone need to be pulled over, but those going 80 in that same zone aren't the problem. It's the drivers above who cause accidents and traffic.

Posted by: Double B on June 13, 2005 3:41 PM