WASHINGTON -- On any given road, at any given time, the posted speed limit might be wildly dangerous -- or completely absurd. So how fast (or slowly) should we drive?
An interstate highway with a posted maximum of 65 mph might be perfectly safe to travel at 75 or 80 mph on a clear summer -- but treacherous at 45 mph in January, after a heavy snow. Common sense tells us the posted limit of 65 mph is too low in the first instance -- and a recipe for a wreck in the second. Most of us therefore continually adjust our speed to match conditions -- without having to be told and no matter what some sign by the side of the road happens to say. We notch it down when it's necessary -- and ignore the posted maximum when it's obviously safe to do so.
But whether we get a ticket or not typically depends solely on a number pulled out of a hat -- not whether the speed we happened to be driving at that moment was safe given the conditions.
This is the single biggest flaw with speed enforcement in our country. It is random and arbitrary; it's definitely (and obviously) not based on promoting safe driving. If it were, otherwise safe and sane drivers wouldn't be in constant jeopardy of receiving expensive "speeding" tickets and insurance surcharges. Instead, it's based on a cynical dragnet-style approach that leaves judgment by the wayside, with a fixation on enforcing what amount to "technical fouls" rather than genuinely dangerous driving. The system as it exists also creates an entirely unnecessary adversarial relationship between the motoring public and law enforcement -- which has come to be viewed by great swaths of the public as little better than armed tax collectors whose object is to "harass and collect."
CLEARLY, THERE IS SOMETHING wrong with the way speed limits are enforced when almost all of us -- from soccer moms to businessman Bobs -- are routinely in violation of them. Either that or a majority of us are simply reckless daredevils with a cavalier attitude toward death and a sociopathic indifference toward the safety of our fellow man. That is both insulting and palpably untrue. In other walks of life, most of us have no trouble obeying the law and behaving in a safe, responsible manner toward others. Why? Because the laws are reasonable, and we understand the difference between right and wrong. Can it be possible that we ditch our judgment and sense of right and wrong when we get into our cars? Is it possible to be rational, considerate, and respectful in other areas of life -- but transformed into reckless, irresponsible loons by our motor vehicles? Or are the laws themselves simply unreasonable, lacking common sense and arbitrary -- and therefore unworthy of our respect?
All evidence points to the latter. The mere act of traveling faster than a posted limit, as such, has absolutely no correlation with a higher risk of being involved in an accident. If that were not the case, then we should have seen a substantial uptick in motor vehicle fatalities after 1995, when Congress finally abandoned the Nixon-era 55-mph National Maximum Speed Limit and gave states the authority to set higher maximums -- which most of them did. Today, most highways have speed limits set at 60, 65, 70 or even 75 mph -- with no corresponding increase in highway deaths.
The old saw, "speed kills" should be re-stated: It is inappropriate speed that kills -- and that is quite a different thing.
If, for instance, a driver has the bad judgment to barrel along at 50 or 60 mph in a heavy snow on a highway with a 65-mph maximum, he might be charged with reckless driving, he might even get someone killed -- but he can't be charged with "speeding." And yet on the very same road in summer, on a bright July day with excellent visibility, another driver can and likely will get nailed for "speeding" if he rolls past a lurking cop doing 70 -- even though he's not driving dangerously and isn't likely to be the cause of an accident.
When he does get pulled over, he feels abused -- and rightly so.
Most of us have developed a sense of contempt for traffic enforcement precisely because of this sort of thing: Handing out tickets to people who are just going with the (perfectly reasonable) flow of traffic; setting up "radar traps" to nab the unwary by dropping the posted maximum to silly-low levels (25 or 30-mph on broad, two-lane secondary roads where the flow of traffic is naturally at 40-45) and so on. This may fatten the coffers of state and local government, but it does little to enhance the safety of our roads. And it undermines public respect for police, a dangerous and counterproductive thing.
What's needed is less focus on arbitrary maximums -- and enforcing "technical fouls" -- and more emphasis on teaching (and expecting) motorists to use common sense and drive at speeds appropriate (and therefore safe) for conditions. That might entail more work than sitting by the side of the road with a radar gun waiting for it to beep while drinking a cup of coffee and chowing down a Crispy Creme -- but it would make the driving environment a lot safer, and restore the natural balance of mutual respect between police and ordinary citizens.