Car Guy

On Speed

The truth about speeding, speed limits, and speed traps.

By 11.11.09

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Some of my very earliest memories are of highway speed limit signs with "70" or even "75" on them. This was in the early 1970s. I also remember my parents routinely driving around 80 mph on these roads. At that time, such speeds were only a few mph above the typical highway maximums, so even if you did get pulled over, the resultant ticket would generally be a minor offense involving a fine -- but no threat of arrest or being charged with "reckless driving."

Then came Richard Nixon and with him the 55 mph National Maximum Speed Limit, imposed in 1974 as a "fuel saving" measure. But the tickets issued were not for "wasting gas." They were issued for "speeding." And these "speeding" tickets became evidence of your allegedly "unsafe" driving habits -- to be used against you by both the state authorities in the form of "points" on your driving record (that might lead to suspension of your driving privileges) or by your insurer to impose rate increases that allegedly reflected the "increased risk" your "speeding" represented.

It did not weigh in your favor that you never actually had an accident or incurred a loss of any sort. Your record might be spotlessly clean in that respect, but it didn't matter. The tickets mattered. "Speeding" was, ipso facto, evidence that you weren't a "safe driver," even though driving those same speeds had been perfectly legal just a few years before.

A massive propaganda campaign ensued to justify the new regime -- with the mantra that "speed kills!" its overarching message.

And everyone had to pretend that it did, just as all North Koreans pay homage to the Dear Leader's infallible genius.

Teenagers were forced to recite the mantra in order to pass driver's education and get their licenses; adults were compelled to bow and scrape before cops and judges, pretending (and sometimes even believing) it was so.

I began my driving career in the early '80s and so lived the horror. During my college days (late 1980s) I received multiple tickets for "reckless driving" -- for doing between 76 and 80 mph on the same highways that, prior to 1974, were posted at 70 (and which after the repeal of the NMSL in 1995, returned to 65).

The fines amounted to thousands of dollars. I had my license suspended. My insurance was sky high. Then in '95, Congress repealed the statute imposing the 55 mph highway limit. All of a sudden it was legal -- and apparently, "safe" -- to do 65 again.

What had been "reckless driving" (arbitrarily defined as driving more than 20 mph above the posted maximum -- whatever that maximum might be and no matter what it once was) and which had cost me a fortune in fines and hiked insurance, was once again a (relatively) minor speeding ticket.

I -- along with millions of other drivers -- never received a refund for all those tickets, nor for the years of paying exorbitantly high insurance premiums.

Things are better now, but not ideal. A few states out West (Utah, Texas) have toyed with higher limits but circa 2010, most highway speed limits are still set 5-10 mph below what they were in the early 1970s -- notwithstanding 30-plus years of massive, even geometric improvement in vehicle design.

Driving at speeds that were considered reasonable and prudent (and which were completely legal) 30 years ago is today still largely considered "speeding" -- even given modern cars that are far more crashworthy (and far less likely to be involved in a crash to begin with) than the cars of the early 1970s.

It's such transparent BS that virtually everyone snickers with contempt at the system and feels no guilt whatsoever about ignoring these arbitrarily confected speed limits whenever possible. If there's no cop in sight, virtually every car is exceeding the posted maximum.

And when one is nabbed by a cop, one feels outrage and disgust -- which would evidence of sociopathy except for the fact that it is normal, otherwise law-abiding people we are speaking of here, not criminals.

People know they are being milked, and they rightly resent it.

If the laws were reasonable, very few people would ever be ensnared by them -- as with laws against stealing, rape, murder and so on. When a law -- any law -- effectively criminalizes broad swaths of the population, especially people who are otherwise "law abiding" and reasonable, it is pretty strong evidence that the law in question is screwy.

Other examples of this include the 1920s-era Prohibition of alcohol (another "crusade" with moralistic undertones but few factual supports). And as happened under Prohibition, respect for the law, in general (and its enforcers) declined precipitously -- and a corrupting influence leached into law enforcement.

Just as has happened with traffic enforcement.

State and local governments have become extremely dependent upon the millions of dollars they rake in every year via the "motorist tax" -- and this heavily (and negatively) influences any effort aimed at reforming these unreasonable, even tyrannical laws. If speed limits were raised to reasonable levels most drivers would not be technically guilty of "speeding" (and subject to a ticket) virtually every time they got behind the wheel. That, in turn, would mean a drastic reduction in "revenue" collected by the armed tax collectors who call themselves police.

And we can't have that.

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About the Author

Eric Peters is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities: The Cars You Love to Hate (Motor Books International) and a new book, Road Hogs.