The Facade Crumbles

Stanley A. Erichson, Jr.

The last shred of pretense that speeding laws contribute to safety on the highways has just been tossed in the trash can of scientific balderdash. There are theories around about how driving slower gives a driver more time to stop, so less accidents will happen. This sounds like it might be true, like most balderdash. Unfortunately for the proponents, every scientific measurement made showed the opposite.

There were three pillars of faith that the believers in this little bit of alchemy used to cite. One was the fact that speeders had more accidents. Collecting the data on this was easy, and it could be done for any state and any time. You just look at accident reports, and see if people who had accidents had more speeding tickets than drivers who didn't have any accidents. They do. This piece of science was based on the premise that if two things occur together, one must cause the other or be caused by the same thing. It's pretty hard to see how having a ticket could cause an accident or how having an accident could cause getting a speeding ticket, except for the accidents in which one of the drivers was cited for speeding as a cause of the accident. Statistical analysis shows that people who drive the most miles have the most tickets and the most accidents. That makes sense, as the more hours you spend on the road, the more likely it is that you will be victimized by the highway patrol, and the more likely that you will be in an accident. Speeding by itself has no connection.

The second pillar was accident statistics themselves. Don't accidents on a road occur more to those who are speeding? Wrong again. A comprehensive review of accident studies by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showed exactly the opposite. Fast drivers had fewer accidents than slower drivers. On a freeway, the safest speed found was 10 mph over the average traffic speed. That's over the speed of the traffic, not over the speed limit. Traffic speed is already aver the limit, and maximum safety occurs faster than that. Why? Accidents happen to people who drive their cars into something. Those people who are good at driving, drive fast. Those who are poor drivers, drunk, drugged, inexperienced, drowsy, slow-witted, nervous, scared, or otherwise impaired, drive slower. Their slowness does not save them. The slow drivers have about 10 times the accident rate of the fast ones.

The third pillar was the nationwide experiment that started when President Nixon cut the national speed limit to 55 to save gas. Accidents, injuries, and fatalities went down. This seemed to prove that slower speeds were safer. The only unsettling thing was that within two years, the rate of accidents went back to the same trendline that it had been following for the previous decades. Recently, the inverse experiment was done, when many highways had their speed limits raised to 65. Paradoxically, the accident, injury, and fatality rate continued to follow the downward trendline.

This means that the entire program of speeding tickets is nothing more than a sham. It does not reduce accidents or save lives. It makes work for the highway patrols who would otherwise be unemployed or directed into more dangerous tasks like catching crooks. It brings money into depleted municipal and state coffers, usually more than offsetting the costs of these bandits' salaries. It also has the advantage of raising the profits, through surcharges, of the automobile insurance companies. Charging high premiums to the country's safest drivers is one of those "free lunches" that there aren't supposed to be any of. So now that the scientific cards are on the table, let's just see how long insurance PAC money can keep the speeding ticket program in place, as more and more drivers realize that they have been had.

Source: May/June 1993 NMA News

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