The other night my wife was driving home on a eight-lane freeway after conducting her church choir. It had been a long day, there were four big, wide empty lanes, she was anxious to get home to her family, and watching the road more than the speedometer. It happened. She was stopped and got a ticket for going over 55 mph. It made no sense under the circumstances. She was endangering no one. It was just the law. "The law's the law, lady!" I wonder what this will do to our insurance premium.
I believe we have our priorites wrong. Let me tell you why.
As a space scientist I spend part of my time working abroad. Several months each year I commute daily to work at a German research institute on the autobahn around Munich. Traffic in the German fast lane starts at about 100 mph and goes up from there. Honestly. There is no speed limit on the autobahn. They merely recommend you keep it down to around 85 mph. Now that's the extreme opposite end of the spectrum from the US. The Germans can't believe we put up with a 55 mph limit on most of our freeways. European countries typically post eight-lane speed limits of around 75 or 80 mph... even places like Hungary. And you see practically no patrolling or radar traps or that kind of thing.
So why do we put such a huge emphasis in the US on slow driving and 100 times as much police manpower as in Europe on enforcing a law that everyone ignores? Could it be that it's easier and more lucrative to catch speeders than to catch burglers and rapists and murderers? In my cynical moments I wonder.
But what about safety?
Interestingly a study at the University of California found that it was safer to drive on a 65 mph rural interstate than on a 55 mph one. How could that be? The answer is that it is difference in speeds that is dangerous. If everyone is going 65, or 75 for that matter, that is safer than having a mix of fast and slow traffic. So we could safely raise our speed limits with a little public awareness of driving at uniform speeds. But you can't do that if some of the people disobey the law and others are afraid to.
What about energy conservation?
That too is a red herring. When you do a "weighted average" of miles driven in the US everywhere by everybody on all kinds of streets and roads, you find that interstate and freeway traffic is a small fraction of the total. It doesn't matter much statistically in comparison to city traffic for example. So it's not cost effective to try to conserve fuel by enforcing 55. With a good tune-up and properly inflated tires you can go 80 and still be fuel efficient.
So what am I proposing? Let's go back to the reasonable system we used to have in place before the Federal government interfered in the 1970's. Each state should determine its own proper speed limits without Federal control. After all, what makes sense in Delaware is nonsense in Nevada.
And if the Federal government just cannot relinquish control back to the states, then let's at least bump the limit up another 10 mph or so. We should at least be allowed to keep up with the Hungarians!
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