Reader Mail

On the Road Again

Speed limits and reader gridlock. Plus: A bad case of linguaphilia. Also: Iraq (boo). Korea (boo).

1.12.05

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ON SPEED
Re: Eric Peters' When Is Speeding Appropriate?:

The premise of Mr. Peters' article, that speed regulation is more a matter of revenue enhancement than safety, was underscored big time in Washington this week. Mayor Tony Williams, whose dreams of a commuter tax are thankfully frustrated by Congress, wrote to the District Council in defense of his administration's proposal to put an additional four mobile radar cameras to work on District Streets. These cameras were vital, he said, because the District urgently needed the revenue they would produce. There was not one word in the letter about safety. The Mayor's press lackeys were quick to dub this an oversight, but to most of us it seemed more like a rare burst of candor.
-- Frank Eisenhart
Annapolis, Maryland

Regarding Eric Peters' article on speed limits, I would direct him to an MIT study on speed and traffic accidents. Higher driving speeds alone were not a factor. Varied speeds and congestion were.
-- Tim Norling

I enjoyed your article on "speeding" and agreed with most of the points.

I am a former Marine who considered a career in law enforcement. I eventually chose other opportunities. While I would have loved to investigate (real) crimes and working to protect my community, I just could not see myself writing traffic tickets. The idea of harassing honest people on the way to work, school, church, whatever, is more than I could stomach. It takes real discipline at times to not resent the cop hiding by the highway with a radar gun.

I now serve in the Army National Guard and many of my fellow soldiers are Cops. Most hate traffic duty. The smarter and happier ones have moved on to real police work such as investigation or the Sky Marshals.

I wonder how many other talented people out there skipped going into law enforcement to avoid traffic duty.
-- Chris Bramley
Allamuchy, New Jersey

The observations concerning "inappropriate" speed were on target. A very little publicized villain is the "snail." This is the individual who putters along at 10-20 mph slower than the traffic flow, thereby forcing other drivers to maneuver around him, thus exposing those drivers to increased risk of accidents. And, there is always those people who drive like they were taught Arab style driving by Chinese in West Africa. All one can do with them is try to stay out of their way.
-- John Jarrell
San Antonio, Texas

For three years I have commuted almost daily between Pittsburgh, PA and Steubenville, OH along the US 22 freeway, a straight stretch of road extremely lightly traveled, even at rush hour. In three years, I have seen or heard of only TWO accidents, both mild fender benders (and both right at the Pennsylvania / West Virginia border). Despite all of this, the road is posted at 55 MPH and is heavily patrolled by PA state troopers. Often I pass more troopers than I do other cars, pulling unwary drivers over for going a reasonable 70-75 MPH on the empty freeway (which in my home state of Michigan would actually be posted at 70 MPH). The road is so empty it is probably more dangerous to drive it at 55 because the sheer tedious boredom of it lulls a driver to sleep or at least to inattentiveness, or a driver is so darn distracted looking constantly at his speedometer to keep himself at a totally unnatural speed while keeping a lookout for troopers lurking behind every bush. Yet just a few miles away is the Parkway West (I-275), leading into Pittsburgh, one of the most hilly, curvy, and heavily traveled freeways in the region with often several accidents a day (late last summer there were five accidents in a 24 hour period... with blue skies and dry roads). This freeway is also posted, and wisely so, at 55 MPH, yet with its terrible accident record and drivers who, even at 60, are recklessly barreling down the hills and through the sharp bends, cutting other commuters off, is almost NEVER patrolled. The troopers only show up on the Parkway when accompanied by a tow truck and an ambulance to cart away the latest car who didn't quite make the bend or the blind approach from an entrance ramp.

It utterly defies logic.
-- Abigail Woods
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Thank you, Mr. Peters. Count me among what I am certain are many, who drive at the appropriate manner of speed depending on the conditions, regardless of the posted speed limit. It just makes sense... unfortunately the roads are filled with drivers who have none. . .which worries me -- as I am now in the process of teaching a fifteen year old to drive and to obey the speed limit.

P.S. I really, REALLY like the new webpage design
-- Cathy Thorpe
Columbus, Georgia

For all the interesting discourse and observation your article takes the wrong approach. The formation, history and application of state traffic laws issued forth from legal and legislative bodies not Newtonian physics.

As a consequence one must, to be charged, have exceeded some norm. To have exceeded means that a norm is required, hence the speed limit sign. And consider the alternative --

Driver: Yes officer?
Officer: You are driving a red car on a Thursday over the speed limit. I need to give you a ticket.
Driver: Red car?
Officer: Yes the judge is red with rage about that color.
Driver: But....

Any lack of an absolute objective measure leaves one open to subjective measures in the mind of the enforcement arm. Better an imperfect measure than none at all.
-- John McGinnis
Arlington, Texas

Since when does the great Spectator hire North Korean spies to render judgment on American traffic enforcement. Only a Nork would mangle the honorable title "Krispy Kreme." One too many phonics lessons prior to infiltration, perhaps.
-- Alex Markowich
Waycross, Georgia

While I share your contempt for the arbitrary maximum speeds on our nations highways, your idea about enforcing speed based on conditions seems completely unworkable. There are simply too many variables that determine what is "safe" at any given time, for example, the handling characteristics and condition of the vehicle, and the skill and attentiveness of the driver.

All things being equal, a sports car with gigantic disk brakes and a low center of gravity can operate more safely at a higher speed than a truck whose design is better suited for hauling or off-road use. But once we factor in driver skill, a sports car operated by an inexperienced 16-year-old kid would not likely be able to operate as safely as a truck operated by a skilled, responsible person of a greater age at a given speed. In addition, if two people of identical skill were to drive identical vehicles under identical conditions, but one was irresponsible and distracted by a cell phone or car stereo or any number of things otherwise intelligent people do while driving, the more responsible person is safer at a given speed.

You can't raise the speed limits without end, nor can you eliminate them. At 75 mph and beyond, the disparity between vehicle-handling capabilities starts to become great enough that a given speed is not safe for all vehicles and drivers. Below 75 mph, most vehicles produced today can operate with reasonable safety on the highway, but even in a perfect world where everyone knows the exact limits of their skill and their vehicles, and does not exceed them, what you are left with is traffic that does not travel at a uniform pace. Some will be comfortable at 55mph, some at 75mph. I believe that would be far more dangerous. The fact that you may get struck by lightning and be fined for speeding arbitrarily is the only reason anyone pays attention to speed limits at all. That's lame, but how else can they do it? You say police should only enforce the law for recklessness, but who gets to decide what is reckless and what is not given all the variables on the highway?
-- Chuck Lazarz

"What's needed is less focus on arbitrary maximums..."

FYI, Arizona generally sets the speed limit at 80% of the average speed of the traffic.
-- Gordon Paravano
Sedona, Arizona

I read Mr. Peters' recent article concerning enforcement of speeding laws with interest. I had hoped that he would speak concerning the various abuses involved in the posting and enforcement of speeding law. I was disappointed that he did not concentrate on those at any length. The points that he did make were, while popular, are, largely, inaccurate.

In the first place, most open area speed limits are arrived at through the use of two things, the critical threshold of the roadway and the eighty-percentile rule. The former establishes the speed at which the most unstable vehicle will lose traction on a dry surface. This, as you may have guessed, is used mainly upon curves. The eighty-percentile rule is simply the speed at which eighty percent of the drivers along a stretch of roadway will usually operate their motor vehicle in good weather. As people tend to operate a motor vehicle at the speed they feel comfortable, setting the speed limit below the eighty percent speed can cause more problems than it solves. Most highway and traffic planners know this. The posted speed limit may also vary from area to area due to other factors that may complicate traffic flow, such as lane endings or heavily traveled on- or off-ramps that have been the site of a high accident count.

As to the statement that traveling faster than the posted speed limit does not lead to a higher number of accidents, he is correct. But when he tries to justify that premise by vaguely comparing the accident statistics between the 55 mph speed limit and the current 60 to 70 mph speed limit of today, he ignores a critical point. That is simply that the difference in the speed of the various vehicles traveling on a roadway is the main speed related factor in causing a crash, not the actual speed itself. Secondly, the 55 mph speed limit was enacted to save fuel, not lives.

His illustration of the driver driving at 60 mph in a snow storm in a 65mph zone not being cited for "speeding" is also in error. In most states, he would indeed be charged with speeding. It is called operating at a speed too fast for conditions and is separate and distinct from reckless driving, which is usually a more serious offense.

Now, why should we have speed limits? Because people need some guidance as to the manner in which they operate their motor vehicle. We have laws governing stopping at intersections so people know who must yield the right of way to whom. We have traffic laws governing where you may park your car, so you do not block your neighbor's driveway. We have laws against leaving your car running while unattended so that, if accidentally left in gear, it will not careen, driverless, down the street or through the parking lot. Therefore, we establish maximum speed limits upon roadways, usually for valid reasons. In some cases, such as limited access highways, a minimum speed limit is also established; remember that speed differential I mentioned earlier?

It should be noted that "speed traps" are established in various locales at various times. If this takes the form of increased enforcement in response to accidents or related incidents, such as school zones; this is a perfectly legitimate law enforcement function. If an artificially low speed limit is set without any traffic related rational, and heavy enforcement is the norm there, then it is probably being used to generate revenue for a political subdivision. This is wrong and it does engender the types of negative feelings to which Mr. Peters refers.

Mr. Peters may not like having limits set by the state, but in some endeavors it is necessary to provide guidance and control. It is nice, in concept, to say that we should expect people to operate their motor vehicles in a common sense manner, but, realistically, it is not going to happen. So, if Mr. Peters operates his motor vehicle within the guidelines set forth by the state, I see no reason why he can't have a pleasant, ticket-free driving experience.
-- Michael Tobias
Ft. Lauderdale, Florida

I want to thank Eric Peters for saying what I, and I believe many other drivers, have felt for a long time. I believe, and I tell my driving-age children this all the time, that the true dangerous drivers are not speeders but slow drivers in the left lane. Many times I will be driving the speed limit in the right lane only to have someone swerve in front of me to get around someone just ahead, going the same speed I am, but in the left lane. I do not blame the guy who cut me off; I blame the inconsiderate deadbeats who refuse to yield the passing lane to people who want to drive a little faster than them. Without them, faster drivers would simply pass the rest of us instead of swerving in and out of traffic.

But what really bothers me is that, while New Jersey (where I live) and Pennsylvania (where I drive frequently) have "keep right except to pass" laws, I almost never see them enforced. I guess it's just easier to nail speeders. But I firmly believe that if the cops would stop targeting speeders and go after the slow drivers in the left lane, our roads would become much safer very quickly.
-- Mark R. Hettler

To add to you wonderfully stated article, the reason that professional race driving accidents are comparatively low is that they all travel at relative speeds to each other. It's the differential speed that causes the problems.

Good day!
-- Ken
Virginia

What's the matter with Eric Peters? Did he get a speeding ticket?
-- unsigned

EATS AND LEAVES
Re: Christopher Orlet's Grammar for Smarties:

Christopher Orlet has made some very erroneous statements in his article "Grammar For Smarties." While he bemoans the "dumbing down" and "threats" to the "mother tongue," he has completely missed the boat concerning the very nature of languages.

Were Orlet's tenets adhered to, across all time, the entire world would be speaking the same language. Different languages, such as German and English, were possible only because people change languages. English itself is a hybrid language, derived from French and German (not Latin, as so many Americans seem to think). This happened due to the Normandy Invasion in 1066. The invading Normans (French) intermarried with the Anglos, who were speaking a tongue derived from German; the "English" language has been evolving and changing ever since.

Furthermore, this "mother tongue" of which Orlet speaks has many different dialects worldwide. Ask any educated British person what the difference is between American English and British English. You are likely to get an earful about how Americans have bastardized the "mother tongue." When the first British came to America, they brought with them the English of their day. That language evolved into American English, and it has many differences from British English. This is simply the nature of languages. And it is part of the beauty of languages for the true linguaphile!

American and British English have many, many differences. These differences would certainly be noted by Swift, Johnson, and Milton -- three of the British (not American) authors mentioned in Orlet's article. And while Orlet bravely asserts that English has changed very little since Shakespeare's time (when the King James Bible was written), he could not be more wrong. Shakespeare can prove to be very difficult reading for the average reader. The language is most certainly not the same; in fact, the syntax of many of the lines in Shakespearian plays and sonnets bears more resemblance to German syntax than it does to modern English with regard to placement of subjects and predicates. Even this had changed by the time Swift, Milton and Johnson were writing in the seventeenth century. Were they alive today, they could certainly enlighten Mr. Orlet regarding the "mother tongue" and its so-called preservation.

Nice try by Mr. Orlet to "prove" that liberals are out to destroy all that is good and right about America by assaulting the language. Mr. Orlet needs to go back to school to study a bit more about linguistics; perhaps he has espoused rather too stringently the tenets of nationalism, and this has warped his ability to decipher truth when it presents itself.
-- Kelly Grant

POST-COLONIAL
Re: Jed Babbin's Democracy in Babylon?:

This might be a good time for some wise fellow to remind us all, again, why exactly it is so bloody important to preserve this thing called Iraq, or any of the other pseudostates sketched out by drunken British and French (you can just imagine that little bender) dips after the Great War.

Why not let the national borders reform along the ethnic, tribal and religious lines that seem to be one of the key root causes of the entire Middle Eastern pain-in-the-ass?

It seems to me that if history has taught us anything, it is that the job of getting diverse peoples to reside together in harmony is properly handled by realtors, not governments.

Send in Caldwell Banker and Century 21. There is no force more irresistible than a real estate agent.
-- Paul Kotik
Playstation, Florida

CALM BEFORE THE STORM
Re: Shawn Macomber's Korea Showdown:

I thought Bush was pulling those troops out? Isn't that one of the things (pulling them out of Germany being the other) he took grief over during the campaign?
-- Sue Ellen Hirtle

We really should have left South Korea long ago. South Koreans blame the USA for all of its ills. Separation of the two Koreas: America's fault. Financial crisis of '97: America's fault. An Australian judge disqualifies a Korean skater in the 2002 Winter Olympics: of course it's a dirty American plot. When they have crowds singing the latest pop song "F*****g USA" every day outside the US Embassy and the Headquarters for US Forces Korea, why that's not anti-Americanism, that's just evolving Korean democracy. Rubbish. They hate us. They just want us to spend billions of dollars a year directly in the defense of the ROK. Not to mention all of the military assets outside of Korea that are earmarked for their defense. Billions more. And at the same time when American soldiers are attacked and even murdered in the streets of Seoul, well that's okay. We are long past the time to go.
-- Chris Buckley
US Army retired

This is spot on! I have served over three years as an Intelligence Officer at both the tactical and strategic level in the Land of the Morning Calm. It is past high time we left and took our weapons with us.

Please withhold my name.
-- unsigned

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