The Public Policy

Make Speeding Impossible?

Once your new car is programmed to go no faster than the posted speed limit, driving will become a nightmare.

By 1.25.06

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Like tearing off that sticker on mattresses that warns us not to "under penalty of law," most of us don't pay much attention to speed limits. Five to ten over is the rule, not the exception -- as any survey of average traffic speeds will confirm. We vote with our right foot every time we get behind the wheel, countermanding the diktats of the local bureaucrats who erect limits well below what large majorities (better than 85 percent, if you want an actual figure based upon actual traffic surveys) of us consider reasonable rates of travel.

But what if driving faster than our masters want us to became an impossibility?

For years, this has been The Dream of safety-badger types, who equate any deviance from often arbitrarily set posted speed limits with mowing down small children in a gigantic SUV with really loud mufflers, one hand on the wheel, the other clutching a half-empty fifth of Jack Daniel's. They pushed for mechanical governors (which never flew) and even managed, briefly, to get a law passed that required all new cars to be fitted with speedometers that read no faster than 85 mph (really).

Now, however, the technology exists for a great leap forward -- or backward, depending on your point of view.

The Canadians are testing out a system that pairs onboard Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) technology with a digital speed limit map. It works very much like the in-car GPS navigation systems that have become so common on late model cars -- but with a twist. Instead of helping you find a destination, the system prevents you from driving any faster than the posted speed limit of the road you happen to be on.

As in a conventional GPS-equipped car or truck, the system knows what road you happen to be on, as well as the direction you're traveling. And the information is continuously updating as you move. But in addition to this, the system also acquires information about the speed limit on each road, as you drive. Once your vehicle reaches that limit, the car's computer makes it increasingly difficult to go any faster. (See TopStories for more details.)

And unlike in years past, when a clumsy mechanical device would be used to physically prevent the gas pedal from being depressed all the way (or the carburetor's throttle plates opened fully), vehicle speed can be easily (and much more thoroughly) limited by a modern car's onboard electronics. Indeed, a few new cars -- mostly powerful sports cars -- already have what's known as a "valet key" that's used to significantly cut back available power at the owner's discretion.

But in this case, the cutting back would be controlled by Big Momma -- and "I can't drive 55" a toothless battle cry from a bygone era.

Ten vehicles equipped with this technology are currently being tested in the Ottawa area; if the trial is "successful," a wider series of tests is planned -- and it's a sure bet the entire thing will eventually be the object of a very strong-armed push to make it mandatory equipment in every new car. It will be sold as a "safety" measure -- just like the 55-mph National Maximum Speed Limit was in this country.

And they may just get away with it -- notwithstanding that nine out of ten of us routinely "speed," a pretty strong indicator of our respect for posted limits and the wisdom of those who set them.

Why isn't anyone asking -- if current speed limits are so sensible, why do so many of us disobey them routinely? Wouldn't it make more sense to adjust speed limits so that they reflect a more reasonable consensus (based upon how we actually drive) rather than constantly push for new ways to compel compliance with limits that most of us clearly think are too low?

Bear in mind that for 20-plus years, we were relentlessly nagged by the self-styled "safety lobby" (and its profiteers in the insurance industry) that to exceed the sainted 55 mph limit was "dangerous speeding" that put ourselves and others at risk. Yet when Congress finally repealed the 55 mph limit in '95 -- and most states raised their highway limits to 65, 70, even 75 mph in some cases -- there was no increase in accident/fatality rates. Clearly, the 55 mph limit was inappropriately low -- and the millions of tickets issued for "speeding" based upon it completely unjustified (if by "justification" one means legitimate safety-related reasons).

The same is true on countless secondary roads -- under-posted limits that are routinely ignored by most drivers -- enforced by radar traps and "justified" on the basis of "safety" even though we're well-aware that driving five or ten mph faster than many of these posted limits has no bearing whatever on safety, just like driving 65 or 70-something mph under the old 55 mph NMSL.

But Canada's little experiment could bring a screeching halt to all that -- literally. Dumbed-down limits -- and dumbed-down driving -- would become much more than the law of the land. They would become an inescapable way of life.

And don't think that it would stop at the border, either. Those always-on Daytime Running Lamps most new cars come equipped with used to be a Canada-only deal, too. The corseted minions of Joan Claybrook (the Carter-era airbag nag who was a fervent booster of the 55 mph NMSL) are surely watching Canada's experiment with great interest, tapping their spindly fingers together as they contemplate the PR campaign they'll launch to stuff it down our gullets a couple of years hence.

So enjoy your furtive law-breaking while you still can. Very soon, Big Momma may be doing a lot more than just watching you.

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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.