Thursday, August 22, 2019

Why We Have Speed Limits And How They Are Set

Speed limits are not mechanisms to generate revenue through speeding tickets.  If you believe that, you are externalizing.

I grew up in the dark days of the 1970's.   Sure, in retrospect, it seemed like fun and games - snorting coke off the mirrored tables of Studio 54 while dancing to disco music, driving home in a block-long Monte Carlo.  The reality was, people did drugs to anesthetize themselves to the reality of the day - the high crime rates, murder rates, corruption, inflation, high interest rates, and unemployment.  And that Monte Carlo barely made 100 hp, sounded like a bucket of bolts, had parts fall off it at the dealership, and rusted to death long before the decade was out.   You don't see a lot of survivor cars from that era, doya?  The signature issue of that decade, of course, was high gas prices.  

How high?  Gas was rationed to even and odd days.   You could not buy gasoline on alternate days.  And even on those days, often the station sold out before noon.   But you kids today - you have it so rough, with your fractional inflation, negative interest rates, all-time-low unemployment, and so on.   What was their complaint again?  Oh, right, someone else has more money than they do.

Getting back to the 1970's, it was so bad that they enacted a national speed limit of 55 miles per hour.  Again, most people today weren't even born back then, so they claim this never happened.  They claim that Nixon - a Republican - never enacted wage and price controls (!!) or that Reagan (another Republican, although not as revered today) never granted amnesty to illegal immigrants.   How times have changed for the GOP!

No one liked the 55 mile-per-hour speed limit.  Try driving it sometime on the Interstate, if you don't get honked at and run over first.   It feels like you are walking.   But the gasoline situation was so dire, that we needed to cut consumption as a matter of national security.  We were dependent on a number of odious foreign countries for our oil back then (Today, we export oil!  How times have changed, yet again!) and many "experts" predicted the world would "run out" of oil, by the year 2010 or 2020 at the latest.

Of course, people continued to speed.  Radar detectors became big sellers, and songs like "I can't drive 55!" were popular tunes.  There became a cache or lore about speeding - idolized in such movies as Smokey and the Bandit and Cannonball Run.

Speed laws back then were about behavioral modification to save gas, not about safety.   And people predictably revolted against them.   And this was a bad thing, as an entire generation was raised on the idea that laws were arbitrary and should be broken when inconvenient.   When people lose respect for the law, laws become hard to enforce.

The 55-mile-per-hour national limit was raised to 65 mph during the Reagan years, and eliminated entirely during the Clinton era.  Today, some roads have speed limits as high as 80 miles an hour - perhaps more.  States determine the safe limits for their own jurisdictions.

Funny thing, too.   Now that people can drive 70 or 75 miles an hour, many chose not to.  On our own section of I-95 in Georgia, I see most people driving at about 65 miles an hour or so, even though they are entitled to drive faster.   A few blow by at 80 miles an hour (usually with out-of-state plates, with predictable results down the road,  You have heard of Georgia speed traps by now, right?  Bring Cash).   But given the chance to go faster, many people don't and for various reasons.

To begin with, most cars seem to drive more comfortably around 62-63 miles and hour.  Wind noise is less and the car seems to track better.  I have noticed this trend on a number of cars.   In addition, the stress of driving faster makes it more tiring to drive.   People subconsciously drive at the speed they feel most comfortable at.

When towing a trailer, even moreso.   At 63 mph, it is stable and calm - "hands off" driving.   At 75, it is a swaying white-knuckle nightmare, no matter how robust your lashup is.   The amount of time saved is trivial going faster, and the experience is anything but relaxing.  Oh, and you get much better gas mileage at the lower speed.

But another reason is also subconscious - but also the reason speed limits are set where they are.  People go faster when they see clear road ahead of them, and also when they see wide open spaces on each side - so-called "runoff" zones.   If they had to stop suddenly for an accident or disabled vehicle, it is easier to spot them when there is less traffic, and you have more "run off" options with wide open spaces on each side.

When driving in traffic, we notice this - people not using cruise control subconsciously slow down when the roadway narrows or the sides off the road are narrower.   When they come to a straightaway and see a line of tail lights, many slow down, thinking there is traffic ahead - when in fact the traffic flow is the same, they are just noticing it now.

Speed limits are, oddly enough, set on these same concepts.   In areas with wide "run off" spaces on either side of the road, limits can be higher.  In areas where there are narrow bridges or rows of trees on either side of the road, limits are lower.  It is just common sense that you want your reaction distance - which is your speed divided by reaction time (the latter being fairly constant) to mirror the available options.

The same is true for urban streets. If you are some kid driving 50 miles-and-hour through a neighborhood, you have few options left to you when Soccer Mom backs her minivan out of the driveway.  And that is not something that is "her fault" but something you should expect when driving through a residential neighborhood.  Sadly, teenagers often don't get this, thinking the best speed a car should travel at is it's maximum one.

The more driveways, cutouts, parking spaces, and whatnot, the lower the speed limits.   At our lake house, a neighbor wanted to install a driveway out to State Road 90, which had a speed limit of 55 miles per hour.  The State refused his permit, as his driveway would be too close to an adjacent driveway.   They had a limit on how many driveways and intersections there could be per mile, in order to maintain the speed limit in that area.   Yea, someone thought of all this.   There are books galore which list standard rules of thumb and engineering principles on nearly every aspect of road constructions - I know, because I've read them.   One of my assignments at GM was to design a new driveway for the plant.   Heady work when you are 18 years old.

That being said, I still drove like an 18-year-old, convinced my youthful reaction times and "driving skills" (ha!) would bail me out if something bad happened.   I've learned a lot since then.  And my reaction times, hearing, sight, and physical strength have all deteriorated since then as well.

Now, some folks argue that speed limits are set artificially low, because they expect that people will drive 5-10 mph over the limit.  And maybe there is some truth to this - sort of like how my Dad tried to call us to dinner, early, in a raging war of passive-aggression.  You are not likely to get a ticket going 60 mph in a 55 zone, or 75 in a 70 zone.   As one policeman friend of mine said (and yes, police are people too!  They actually have friends and family members!) he doesn't even bother to look up unless the radar is reading over 80.   Plenty of people to catch, even so.

Speed enforcement is, of course, an uneven thing.  Because we are all so concerned about our "rights" (but not those of the people we run over) we don't allow speed cameras in the USA (but for some reason allow red light cameras - go figure).   If we installed speed cameras, even a few of them, speeding would be reduced considerably - or perhaps eliminated.  You could, with today's technology, install a simple governor in each car that would keep it from going faster than the speed limit in that area - the technology already exists.  And if robotic cars become a thing, no doubt they will be programmed not to speed.  Speeding may become a thing of the past, along with drunk driving.   Well, don't count on it - but it may be reduced by a factor of ten.

But like anything else, the threat of enforcement is enough to slow down the majority of people. There will always be a few jackasses on the Interstate trying to go 10 mph faster than traffic flow (and causing traffic flow to slow down as a result, as they jam on their brakes over and over again when they encounter slower traffic doing "only" 5 mph over the limit).  There will always be the kids on "crotch rockets" who "lane share" at over 150 mph and hopefully don't bruise their liver too much when they finally buy it into the back of a semi.   But the threat of enforcement is what keeps honest people honest - just as locks keep out the average Joe, but are no deterrent to the hard-core criminal.

There is, of course, another deterrent.  Once you've been in a few wrecks, and maybe a few near-misses, or had friends who were maimed or killed in wrecks, or worse yet, killed innocent others, you realize what a charnel house the local roadways have been since the dawn of the automobile.    Hard to believe, but when I was a kid, we had steel dashboards on cars and no one wore seatbelts.   No one. They were kind of useless, anyway.  The few cars that had them, had only lap belts.  If you hit a lamp post at 30 mph it often was fatal.   Today, you can roll an SUV at 70 and maybe even walk away from it.  Best not to test how effective those airbags are, though.

So what's the point of all this?   Well, as a follow-on to my last posting, in part.  Speed laws are not arbitrary - at least not since the abolition of the Federal 55-mph limit in 1995.  There are very good reasons they are set where they are set, and the argument that they are just "revenue producers" is a loser's argument.   As I noted in my speeding posting, you can jack your insurance rates through to the stratosphere - higher than your car payments - if you want to routinely speed.   You are not saving much time, if any, and are wasting gas, tires, and wearing on your car - and yourself.

Rather than look at laws as arbitrary infringements on your liberty, think about why they are in place, and maybe learn something from them.  Just a thought.

UPDATE:  In response to my last posting, as expected, I did get e-mails from some viewers who claim that speeding tickets are indeed a revenue generator and the whole system is set up to make money from motorists.   If so, it is a horribly inefficient system - given how much it costs per hour to run a patrol car with at least one officer in it - I doubt it breaks even.   Moreover, in a way, it is a stupidity tax, like the lotteries.  If you don't want to pay, then don't play.

The argument that speed traps are "revenue generators" and "unfair" is classic Externalization.  It isn't your shitty driving that is to blame, or your unreasonable desire to go faster than is necessary - no, it is the government's fault your insurance costs thousands a year!   Yea, right.  Go sell crazy somewhere else, please.

And back when I got speeding tickets, in my 20's, I used to believe all that crap, too.   Then I gave up on externalizing and realized I could control some aspects of my life after all.

I haven't had a speeding ticket in over 20 years - since I stopped speeding.   Funny how that works, eh?   If your really want to boycott the system and starve them for revenues, then just slow down.   As an added bonus (the real bonus) your insurance will drop down to trivial amounts.   I get ads from insurance companies saying they can save me $480 a year on car insurance.   That would be a neat trick, as that would mean they were paying me to insure my car.   Just stop speeding and driving like a jackass.   Speeding doesn't save any time, and it wastes a lot of money, and annoys the crap out of the rest of us.  Oh, and its dangerous.