On speed limits

Food for thought.

Speeding is a national health problem and a big reason why this country is increasingly an outlier on traffic safety in the developed world. More than 1 in 4 fatal crashes in the United States involve at least one speeding driver, making speeding a factor in nearly 10,000 deaths each year, in addition to an unknowable number of injuries. Thousands of car crash victims are on foot, and speed is an even more crucial determinant of whether they live or die: The odds of a pedestrian being killed in a collision rise from 10 percent at 23 mph to 75 percent at 50 mph. And we’re now in a moment of particular urgency. Last year, when the pandemic shutdowns lowered total miles traveled by 13 percent, the per-mile death rate rose by 24 percent—the greatest increase in a century, thanks to drivers hitting high velocities on empty roads. “COVID,” [Connecticut State Trooper Kevin] Roberts said, “was midnight on the day shift.”

In the first six months of 2021, projected traffic fatalities in the U.S. rose by 18 percent, the largest increase since the U.S. Department of Transportation started counting and double the rate of the previous year’s surge. “We cannot and should not accept these fatalities as simply a part of everyday life in America,” said Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in a press release.

But we do. Such carnage has not prompted a societal response akin to the movement elicited by drunk driving in the 1980s. Part of the reason is that Americans love driving fast and have confidence in their own abilities. About half admit to going more than 15 over the limit in the past month. Meanwhile, drivers do generally regard their peers’ speeding as a threat to their own safety, and so we have wound up with the worst of both worlds: Thousands of speed-related deaths on the one hand, and on the other, a system of enforcement that is both ineffective and inescapable.

What I was about to do with Trooper Roberts on that fall morning—chase down a driver on the highway, pull over the car, and issue a ticket—is the No. 1 way Americans interact with police and serves as the start of 1 in 3 police shootings. But it doesn’t stop Americans from speeding.

The nation’s most disobeyed law is dysfunctional from top to bottom. The speed limit is alternately too low on interstate highways, giving police discretion to make stops at will, and too high on local roads, creating carnage on neighborhood streets. Enforcement is both inadequate and punitive. The cost is enormous. And the lack of political will to do something about it tracks with George Carlin’s famous observation that everybody going faster than you is a maniac and everybody going slower than you is an idiot. The consensus is: Enforce the speed limit. But not on me, please. Because while it would be nice to save 10,000 lives a year, it sure is fun to drive fast.

From there, the story goes into the history and demise of the national 55 MPH speed limit, the promise and pitfalls of speed cameras, why speeding on city streets is deadlier than speeding on the interstate, and more. I’m old enough to remember the entire history of the 55 MPH speed limit, and I don’t miss it. I tend to agree with the assertion that raising a speed limit from something that was artificially low to something more like what most people actually drive does not make people drive even faster. I don’t feel any less safe on Texas highways now than I did thirty years ago. On the other hand, we definitely need to take real action to slow people down on city streets, especially in areas where pedestrians and bicyclists are at risk. The difference between even going 25 MPH and going 35 or 40 MPH, particularly in the type of oversized vehicle most people drive, can easily be fatal. I have one daughter who drives and another who will be old enough to take drivers’ ed next year, and road hazards are one of my biggest worries about them. Unfortunately, I don’t feel optimistic about any good solutions that the public will accept coming around. Read the whole thing, and stay safe out there.

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4 Responses to On speed limits

  1. King Greggo I says:

    There’s no time for anything and even leisure time is rushed. I once heard Ralph Nader talk about the bitter irony of how we are happy when speed limits are raised, because then we have more time to rush and cram more activities into insufficient time.

    Driving cars as we know it, one-brain efforts to control hurtling machines with taps on physical controls, will soon be an anachronism. Vehicles with AI can control themselves far better and more safely than we can. There are better things to do than using our time to drive cars. “It’s only a matter of time.”

  2. Joel says:

    “Vehicles with AI can control themselves far better and more safely than we can.”

    so their manufacturers keep telling us.

  3. Ross says:

    Sure AI is better. That’s why we never see articles like this one https://www.npr.org/2022/01/18/1073857310/tesla-autopilot-crash-charges

    Not a fan of AI driving, unless it can detect when the driver is not paying attention, and pull the c ar over to a safe stop.

  4. Jason Hochman says:

    I remember the national speed limit. Much like the current age, there was a shortage and price spike of gasoline. Then president Gerald Rudolph Ford, who much like Biden, was prone to falling down and was not elected, and also loved the environment, decided that reducing the speed limit would save gasoline. It apparently did, but not to the extent that the government thought that it would, again illustrating that government is not a good place to get your Science.

    With electric, and more fuel efficient cars, we now must look at the safety of allowing drivers to drive at speeds way beyond their ability. Most of us don’t have the skill and talent to drive at high speeds. The men who race professionally aren’t just running around with a lead foot. They have years of practice and training, and are racing on a closed course with other drivers who understand the risks of the sport. The temperature inside a closed racing car, such as NASCAR, soars over 100 degrees while you are wearing your fireproof underwear. NO AC, no cell phone in the cabin, no banging stereo. YOU couldn’t handle truly driving fast.

    In addition, the roads are more crowded than ever, with households having multiple cars and drivers, plus, older and older drivers are on the roads. With the increased traffic, I feel much less safe driving than I felt just five years ago.

    For city driving, I would limit the vehicles, and outlaw any pickup trucks and SUVs in the city. You don’t need such a massive vehicle. Growing up, our family car was a ’64 Beetle, an early hybrid, it went half the time on gasoline and the other half from us pushing it. Indeed, I remember pickup trucks as work vehicles, most with only bench seat, usually covered in that vinyl plastic that is hot in summer and cold in winter. If there was a radio, it was a little AM radio with a speaker in the dash. Whatever happened to real working pickup trucks. Now they all have a king cab, leather seats, automatic transmission, AC, stereo, and such. I would limit all cars in urban areas to Can-Am Spyder, DAF City, and Smart.

    Returning the 55 mph speed limit would allow small towns that have no tax revenue, and who have their federal HUD flood relief money gulped up by cry babies in Houston, to raise money by aggressively speed trapping their little stretch of highway or their main street, to get money from the rich, White privilege elites who race around the town, while simultaneously helping the planet. I read about a town called Brookside, Alabama, that is forced to cook up traffic fines just to get by. A national speed limit is a win for all.

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