Speeding: The Law Must Change

I have a pretty clean driving record. I’ve been driving almost every day for over twelve years. If I had to guess, doing a bit a quick & dirty math, I’ve probably racked up over 200,000 miles total spread across eight cars. In all those miles, cars, and years, I’ve only been in two accidents—only one of which was legally my fault—and have only been charged with two traffic citations.

As you might expect, my two traffic citations were both speeding tickets. My first was some time around November, 2000 and was for 70-ish in a 55 zone in Greene County, Virginia, on U.S. 29 south. The second, visible at right, was over ten years later on this December 3 for 69 in a 55 zone in Fairfax County, Virginia, on state route 28 south.

So what happened to break my decade-long ‘no-ticket’ streak? I had left work and was heading south on route 28 to pick up Melissa. For most of its length in Loudoun and Fairfax Counties, 28 (‘Sully Rd.’) is a straight, multi-lane freeway built to (or exceeding) the U.S. Interstate Highway standards. It has three travel lanes in each direction, broad shoulders, and no traffic lights except in a couple isolated places where they haven’t been removed yet. The stretch I was on had no lights, and the prevailing speed is in the 65-70 miles-per-hour range. This speed is perfectly safe for wide freeways.

As I passed the U.S. 50 interchange I ended up ‘on my own’; much of the traffic around me had taken the exit and I was in a ‘pocket’ between cars ahead of and behind me. I was taking the next exit, Willard Rd., and I noticed as I approached the exit that a presumably disabled vehicle was sitting in the triangular area between the oncoming U.S. 50 traffic and the main route 28 lanes. In the evening darkness, I didn’t notice that the ‘disabled vehicle’ was a Police Interceptor trim Ford Crown Victoria until I was way too close for it to make a difference. Oops.

Ofc. Coulter of the Fairfax County Police Department, unlike some other FCPD officers I’ve run into over the years, was professional and respectful. I didn’t fight his statement that I was going 69 in a 55 zone—I was. He caught me fair and square. I paid the $84 fine and $62 in associated costs and fees without contention (it’s case number GT10256193-00 in the Virginia Courts Case Information System, if you’re interested). I’m not going to spend this article railing against Ofc. Coulter, who did nothing wrong. I’m not going to rail on and on about how the police have better things to do than bust speeders (though this is probably true). I am, however, obliged to point out the sheer absurdity of most speed limits in the Commonwealth of Virginia (and elsewhere), and ask that they be reviewed and corrected.

I’ve spoken before about how logical speed limits help reduce road rage. Many of the problems with traffic flow in major metropolitan areas trace back to illogical speed limits, because there are basically two types of drivers: people who drive at the highest safe speed, regardless of the posted limits; and those that just go the speed limit. Curiously enough, the discrepancy between their speeds causes most of the gridlock, accidents, road rage, etc., that you see on the roads. If we raised the speed limits, these two groups would be going the same speed (or at least closer to the same speed) and many of these problems would be mitigated or eliminated.

When I say this to people, I often get looks of disbelief. They argue that if we raised speed limits, people would just go 5 or 10 miles-per-hour over the new limit. They argue that higher speeds must increase highway fatalities and accidents. They say that speed limits must stay where they are for public safety reasons, or for fuel economy reasons. None of this holds water in the face of the evidence.

The truth is, as I stated, that many (most?) drivers drive at the safe speed for the road. In fact, traffic engineers have long supported the ’85th percentile rule’: speed limits should be set at the speed that 85 percent of drivers are travelling under in clear, daytime, unrestricted (i.e., no traffic) conditions. In other words, the speed should be set so only 15 percent of drivers are speeders. Engineers also expect these speed limits to be reevaluated regularly since behavior can change with time. This was finally enacted into law in Michigan several years ago; the state is now prohibited from considering revenue (i.e., speeding ticket money) in setting its speed limits. True to rational predictions, highway fatalities, accidents, and road rage incidents all dropped as the speed limits went up in Michigan.

The other argument in favor of artificially low speed limits is that it improves fuel economy, which has both environmental and national security implications. When the nation-wide 55 miles-per-hour speed limit was put in effect in the 1970’s, it was for this reason. While this might have been true in the 1970’s, automotive technology has come a long way since then. Cars in the ’70s needed oil changes every 3,000 miles, while new cars typically have an interval of 7,000 miles or more. We used to be satisfied with miles-per-gallon ratings well under 20mpg, but now even many of our gas-guzzling SUV’s can do better than this (on highways, at least). The biggest impact on high-speed mpg is aerodynamics, since the air drag increases exponentially with velocity. Look at some cars from the ’70s and compare their aerodynamics to today’s cars; the difference is obvious. It might surprise you to find out that most modern cars are just as efficient at 70 or 75 miles-per-hour as they are at 55; some are even more efficient at higher speeds.

It’s time we let the traffic engineers do their jobs. Speed limits shouldn’t be based on revenue/ticketing considerations, or on the short-sighted ‘I don’t want people going fast in my neighborhood’ petitions, or on anything other than sound science and engineering. Based on the 85th percentile rule, the speed limit on route 28 should have been 65 or 70. Either way, I probably would have been going the same speed I was on December 3, but I wouldn’t have been pulled over and wouldn’t have lost the money. I know I was breaking the law and took the risk, so I paid without fighting it . . . but driving at a safe speed on a major highway shouldn’t be a crime.

So let’s do this: set the speed limits high, but actually enforce them like we enforce any other law. Set the speed limit on highways like route 28 to 70 or even 75, but ticket people for going even 1 mile-per-hour over the limit. Let’s have our laws say what they mean and mean what they say, with no arbitrary buffer zones or subjective determinations of who is being ‘criminal enough’ to warrant a stop. Make the limit reasonable, and then make it a real limit. And most importantly, let’s make speed limits a matter of safety, not a matter of revenue generation.

Speed limits as a government taxation (or extortion) scheme, with unreasonable and artificially low limits, do nothing but undermine respect for the rule of law and for the police that enforce it. As currently implemented, they have become as useless as alcohol prohibition became. If a majority, or even a sufficiently sizable minority of citizens are breaking a law, that law has obviously failed. In a democratic republic, that means the law must change.

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.