When I leave the Car and Driver offices on Hogback Road each evening, I usually take the northbound freeway to make my way home. One evening, as I was accelerating up to speed to match the tempo of the evening traffic, I spotted a police car behind me. That's not unusual - our offices are a block from the Washtenaw County Sheriff's - so I eased up a bit to avoid any unnecessary misunderstanding.
The deputy increased his speed quickly, nosing through traffic aggressively, with motorists soon giving the room required of the men in blue. Certainly, the officer must be on pressing business, I thought. Once he had gained a reasonable lead, I picked up speed and followed at a respectful distance. To my surprise, he pulled over onto the median and my radar detector reported him spraying microwaves at the southbound traffic.
Yes, the officer was speeding to a venue where he could begin handing out tickets to people who were exceeding the speed limit. Pretty silly scenario, isn't it? Actually, it's about as silly as the situation we all find ourselves in every driving day, when the speed limit sign says one thing, and every car on the road (except for that smoky '72 Mercury with the collapsed left front spring) is doing 10 or 15 mph above that.
So, are speed limits too low, or are the vast majority of drivers irresponsible scofflaws? The professional safety-noisemakers, the insurance industry, and maybe the cops will say we're all driving dangerously fast. The rest of us (including some traffic-research engineers from the Federal Highway Administration) believe the limits are set artificially low. [Note from NMA: See the final report.]
You don't need a degree in advanced math to see that we outnumber the low-speed-limit proponents handily. And seeing as how this is a democracy, where the majority gets what it wants, this should be easily straightened out, right? Well, not exactly. If it's true that citizens get the government they deserve, then we motorists obviously deserve the miseries of our own making. You just have to look at the things motorists put up with to realize what a hopelessly disorganized bunch we are. Despite being the largest group of citizens with a common interest - there are about 170 million licensed drivers in the U.S. - we drivers allow ourselves to be pushed around by police, city hall, Congress, the insurance industry, and just about anyone else in the mood to do some pushing.
Speak to reasonable drivers and you'll find a surprising consensus of opinion on many matters of everyday importance. Such as how speed limits are a joke, observed more in the breach than in actual compliance. And how the police seem to spend more time taking radar potshots at cars on roads where the limits are too low than they do pursuing more serious violations, and how they drive at whatever speeds they like, whether en route to an emergency or just to the doughnut shop, and we remain silent. And how they treat drivers who've exceeded the speed limits like dangerous criminals, keeping them waiting for protracted lengths of time while humiliating them with all those flashing lights, just to issue a ticket. They block off lanes of the traffic while conducting transactions that could just as easily be done on the road shoulders. In this, they appear impervious to the delay they cause the rest of us, and we wait humbly until we can pass.
You'll find agreement among most drivers that insurance rates are unreasonably high but unavoidable because the law requires everyone to have insurance. Most of the people I know think that license points systems are an excuse to wring more money out of us. We watch the industry con us with lowball-price advertisements for premiums that we know will increase substantially by the time we've added a few options. We watch the government introduce legislation to control air pollution (which we'll pay for) that puts ever tighter screws on an industry already making cars with 96-percent clean exhaust. Then we allow any number of gross polluters to run around, not to mention the large numbers of stationary sources that continue operating.
We've all become so inured to the double standard that prevails in the world of motorized transport that we no longer question it. Speed limits that make no sense will inevitably be flouted, particularly after we notice that enforcement is sporadic and arbitrary. Double yellow lines painted on roads with room and visibility for passing get ignored. It's obvious that when regulation makes no sense and restricts reasonable activity, we tend to break the law. That seems to reduce our respect for the law, and we start adopting driving habits that only adhere to the highway code when we're under surveillance by the law-enforcement system.
This is childish behavior. Self-regulating citizens with a properly developed sense of responsibility do a much better job of conducting themselves down the road. But right now, we're so apologetic about using the vehicles that poor social planning and myopic government have rendered indispensable that we'll endure any amount of repression. I don't understand this. Why are we unable to stand up for ourselves and ask that common sense prevail? Could it be that we have no effective spokespersons, no lobby?
The largest motoring organization in the world, the American Automobile Association (AAA), is also one of the insurance companies that benefit from unrealistically low speed limits and the resulting high rate of speeding infractions. So we clearly can't turn to it. The only other organization I know of that is striving to get motorists a fair shake is the National Motorists Association (NMA). It currently has about 15,000 members, or less than one-hundredth of one percent of all licensed drivers. Still, it's working hard on issues like speed zoning, the clunker bill, CAFE, and emissions regulations. To see what it's up against, listen to this. When the NMA tried renting a billboard in Michigan with an advertisement showing a cop pointing his radar gun at the reader and a caption that read "Are you tired of this?", the billboard company refused to accept the business.
It's obvious that a tiny increase in NMA membership would greatly improve the group's lobbying power. At $29 a year, it's money well spent. To join, just call 1-800-882-2785. It'll give the NMA and us the lobbying power we need to end all this foolishness.
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