A Speed Theory Quiz: NMA E-Newsletter #583

Let’s have some fun with this. We’re going to quote the opening, middle, and closing paragraphs of a traffic engineering paper, and you guess what year it was published. In fact, let’s simplify that further: In which era was the paper published?

  1. Pre 55 mph National Maximum Speed Limit (before 1974)
  2. During the NMSL restriction (1974 to 1995)
  3. Post NMSL (after 1995)

The answer can be found at the end of this newsletter. One thing is certain: Deep down, most traffic engineers have always known the truth about speed limits. Too often, though, they haven’t had the influence or the fortitude to overcome the politics of “speed kills” or the mentality that otherwise responsible drivers are naturally programmed to go too fast. The result has been a plethora of revenue-based, rather than safety-based, enforcement systems.

Here are the opening paragraphs of the paper:

“Transportation is an essential element in the dynamic society found in present-day America. Not only is it essential that persons and goods be moved from place to place, but great emphasis is placed on the fact that this movement be made rapidly and comfortably. Thus we find that speed is a primary factor in all modes of transportation. In the realm of highway transportation, speed is not only one of the most discussed factors, but it also is one of the most controversial factors. Every traffic expert, whether professionally qualified or self-designated, is usually ready and willing to discuss the speed problem during the course of the daily conversation. Such terms as, “Speed is the greatest contributing cause to traffic accident severity,” “Speed still public enemy No. 1,” “Speed kills,” and “Nobody obeys the speed limit,” may be heard or read with increasing frequency. 

“Because many recognized traffic specialists disagree on various factors of the so-called speed problem, it is not surprising that the general public has many varied and often diverse opinions concerning speed. Consequently, it might be well if the term “speed” be defined as the rate of movement of a vehicle, generally expressed in miles per hour. The term “speed” is an indication of velocity; however, as commonly used, the term implies high speed. The question may then be raised, “Well, what is meant by the term ‘high speed’?” Not only would a description of this adjective vary between individuals, but each individual would possibly change his definition in accordance with the existence of other conditions present on or off the highway. Such items as visibility, weather, surface characteristics, vehicle type, traffic movements and volumes, pedestrians, driver variables, and soon, might all influence the answer. It is therefore essential that all those who are actively engaged in the battle against traffic accidents and congestion have a clear understanding of the many facets of the so-called speed problem.”

Further on,

“The following conclusions were drawn in the study [where observations were made on two residential city streets carrying state and federal highway routings):

  1. Traffic consistently ignores posted speed limits and even the absence of speed limit signs, and runs at speeds which the drivers consider reasonable, convenient, and safe under existing conditions;
  2. Drivers do not operate by the speedometer but by the conditions they meet;
  3. The general public gives little attention to what speed limits are posted;
  4. The general public has a false conception of speed;
  5. Most present posted speed limits are ineffective because they are unreasonable and hence are useless. Their removal would have virtually no effect on traffic and would save large sums of money;
  6. Speeds vary little with the time of day;
  7. Speeds vary little with traffic volumes up to the point where congestion begins;
  8. Adequate speed limits, high enough to cover normal traffic operations and enforced with only sufficient tolerance to meet unusual conditions or cover the usual inaccuracies of stock speedometers, would probably help expedite traffic and aid in the enforcement of all traffic regulations;
  9. Extensive additional studies of this nature are needed from which to derive data for an intensive campaign of education for both the general public and public officials on the true concepts of speed limits; and
  10. A sound definition of speed limit should be developed and universally adopted.”

And in conclusion,

“Government officials must be taught to look upon speed measuring devices as enforcement and engineering equipment, and not as revenue equipment. Engineers must learn how to determine speed characteristics and to establish speed zones in a scientific manner. The police and courts must learn and utilize the latest methods for apprehending and re-educating those drivers who drive at speeds that are unreasonably too fast or too slow. Last, but by no means least, the general public must learn that speed facts are being assembled, and they must demand public officials who will utilize these facts.”


The answer is a), the pre-NMSL era. The paper was presented in 1957 at the University of Wisconsin Traffic Engineering Institute by John Baerwald, a professor of traffic engineering at the University of Illinois.

Not an NMA Member yet?

Join today and get these great benefits!