The Nation's Pulse

Speed Limit Senses

Any chance for a return to a "reasonable and prudent standard"?

By 1.16.07

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"Speeding" is one of those things that are very much in the eye of the beholder -- and the letter of the law.

There is the legal definition: Traveling in excess of the posted maximum (whatever the number). Exceed the posted maximum and you may be ticketed for "speeding." Very straightforward.

But there is another -- possibly better -- definition. One that actually correlates with safe, appropriate rates of travel (unlike the current definition, which is rigid, dogmatic -- and frequently bears no relationship to safe, appropriate rates of travel).

It is the "reasonable and prudent" standard.

In a nutshell, it correlates at-fault accidents with excessive speed. If you lose control of your vehicle and get into an accident, then by definition you were driving too fast for conditions, your skill level, etc. And you get a ticket for speeding.

Doesn't this strike you as much more sensible than the system we have adopted -- which defines "speeding" according to arbitrary numbers that go up and down with the winds (and whims) of bureaucrats? Under which you may be ticketed and fined and branded guilty of "unsafe" driving even though you may never have so much as dinged a door, let alone caused an accident?

We all know the current system's clumsy, random -- and corrupted by money-lust. Even the cop manning his radar gun knows the majority of the drivers he pulls over haven't done anything that's genuinely unsafe. They've just made the mistake of traveling faster than the number on a sign says they may. The judges know it, too. So do the insurance companies. We all play our parts. The officer lectures; the judge scolds; the insurance admonishes (by letter) and premium "adjustment."

It's all very cynical.

Worse, it muddies the waters about what constitutes safe driving by taking common sense and sound judgment out of the equation, and in their place demanding blind obedience to often obviously silly rules (the old 55 mph highway speed limit being an obvious example), "just because."

We all knew driving 55 mph on highways designed for 70-75 mph was absurd. But even though most of us ignored the rule whenever we had the chance, we'd play the game when pulled over. "Yes, officer. I'm sorry officer. I won't do it again, officer."

Today, of course, the 55 mph limit is no more -- and on those very same highways it is now perfectly lawful to drive at 65, 70 mph (or faster). It didn't become "safer" to do so by legislative fiat. It just became legal. But for 20-plus years, American drivers were harassed and fined and made to cavil like wretches before the god of the double nickel. We all had to pretend 55 mph was the "safe" speed -- and pay the piper whenever we forgot.

The same ugly little con continues to play out on secondary roads all over the country. Every town has its 25 mph (or 35 mph) radar trap zone. Roads where the posted maximum is set 5-10 mph (or more) below the natural flow of traffic -- so that virtually every car is technically "speeding" and its driver vulnerable to a fat fine.

Under the reasonable and prudent standard, all that would go away. Drivers would be judged on their merits (or deficiencies) instead of how well they hew to arbitrary edicts (or how adept they are at slipping the noose). A direct, causal relationship between good (or bad) driving -- as measured by your ability to avoid accidents -- would be substituted in place of the current regime, which often as not penalizes excellent drivers who may drive faster than dumbed-down limits say they should, but do so with skill (as demonstrated by their knack for not wrecking their vehicle) while rewarding inept, marginal (and more accident-prone) drivers who always obey the letter of the law.

It makes sense, the data supports it -- but there's less money to be made for the powers-that-be.

And that's why we'll never see the reasonable and prudent standard put into practice.

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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.