By guest writer Eric Peters
The problem with speed limits is they’re arbitrary and presumptive.
A velocity maximum is decreed, and you are presumed a threat to others if you exceed it. Almost everyone understands this is silly—else almost everyone would not “speed” routinely. Most of us do not play Russian roulette, for instance, irrespective of any laws forbidding it, because we don’t need to be threatened with a ticket to refrain from putting a loaded gun to our heads.
Almost everyone understands that driving five, ten mph, or even faster than above whatever the speed limit is isn’t like that. That “breaking” the speed limit is like stepping on sidewalk cracks and not likely to break your momma’s back. It is why few feel shame or guilt when “caught” going faster than the speed limit. Indeed, the opposite is likely true. Drivers resent being extorted by the courts and insurance mafia over something we know caused no harm and was not likely to cause harm.
Interestingly, this defeats the supposed purpose of speed limits if the purpose isn’t to pretextually fleece motorists.
Ostensibly, speed limits are posted—gird yourself—for “our safety.” It is an almost mathematical axiom that the very last thing intended is the plain meaning of those two words when you hear those two words.
An altogether different meaning is intended, which can be demonstrated by pointing out how useless speed limits are as information about how fast or not it is safe to drive on any given road, especially an unfamiliar one.
This ought to be the purpose of speed limits—advisory rather than arbitrary. Suppose limits convey useful information about speed in relation to the road ahead instead of the set-deliberately-below-the-speed most people drive on that road. More might actually drive the advisory speed limit. Inevitably, most drivers ignore the posted limits and see them as easy pickings for on-the-go tax collection.
Part of the problem is vocabulary.
A speed limit sounds like some engineering threshold, like an engine’s RPM limit. Exceed the redline, and engine damage is probable because the engine’s mechanical limits have been exceeded.
Most people take care not to exceed the redline because they know it has objective informational value, and they’d better pay attention to it.
But a speed limit is nothing like that. It is a statutory limit—something illegal to exceed because it has been so decreed but not necessarily harmful in and of itself.
It is obviously not an objective threshold beyond which danger lies, which is why most people do speed, regardless of any statute. General contempt for speed limits is universal, which undermines “our safety.”
It is not because people “speed,” but because the correlation between the signage and conditions is so tenuous that most of us ignore the signs unless police are in the vicinity. While some drive too slowly relative to the speed, the rest of us are driving to make sure that traffic does not needlessly bunch up when it could be flowing much more smoothly. This sets up a bizarre and irritating dynamic.
The speed limit obeyers are often taking a kind of righteous delight in their rigid obedience, which in their minds justifies not yielding to the drivers exceeding the speed limit because they are breaking the law! While the “speeders” understandably get exasperated by the “slowpoke” ahead who is preventing them from driving at a speed they know isn’t dangerous, even if statutorily unlawful.
If “our safety” rather than our money is desired, the gov, perhaps, should post speed advisories with no fines attached.
This would benefit drivers not familiar with a given road by giving them a sound ballpark idea about how fast they ought to enter an unfamiliar curve, for instance. They would be given heed for the sake of safety as opposed to fear of a fine.
Because we have speed limits, people tend to either completely ignore them—knowing they can likely take the curve up ahead at ten or even twenty MPH faster than the sign says is “safe” (even at the risk of a ticket) because they have been driving that road and taking that curve every day for the past ten years at ten or even twenty MPH faster than the sign says is “safe.”
If a driver is not familiar with the road and has not taken the curve up ahead every day for the past ten years, they see the sign that says twenty-five MPH and creates a road hazard by driving preposterously slow for the curve. The next time they take that road, they’ll probably ignore the sign, like almost everyone else.
Motorists then habituate a combination of contempt for the signage as well as mindless obedience of signage irrespective of conditions, and neither is of much service to the cause of “our safety.” The entire regime is as counterproductive and cynical as it is profitable.
This explains why probably speed limits as absolute won’t end anytime soon.
Eric Peters lives in Virginia and enjoys driving cars and motorcycles. In the past, Eric worked as a car journalist for many prominent mainstream media outlets. Currently, he focuses his time writing auto history books, reviewing cars, and blogging about cars+ for his website EricPetersAutos.com.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this newsletter are those of the author.