Down With Safety

By John Carr, NMA Massachusetts Activist

NonanswerAn answer that is so vague or noncommittal as to be worthless (Wiktionary)

I’m sick of hearing about safety. I’m sick of hearing lobbyists described as safety experts. I’m also sick of hearing supposed professionals invoke safety as if it were a magic spell.

Today’s example comes from Illinois.

Illinois authorities had to decide whether to post 70 mph speed limits on highways. The decision should have been easy. People are already driving 70. State officials acknowledge that speed limits should be based on normal driving speed.

They decided to keep 55 mph speed limits near Chicago. A spokesman said “IDOT’s top priority is the safety of those using our transportation system.”

“Puppies are our top priority” would be an equally valid explanation. If you disagree with the decision you must hate safety (or puppies), even if you don’t understand why.

“Safety” is not an explanation. It is a nonanswer. It does not tell you why 55 is right and 70 is wrong. Neither does “congestion” or any other word in the DOT PR thesaurus.

A real explanation would sound like “Computer models indicate injury crashes would be 17% higher if I-94 were posted 60, 65, or 70 instead of 55.” That is a specific prediction of adverse consequences.

Of course the computer didn’t say that (and they didn’t ask). People are already driving 70. Posting 70 wouldn’t increase crashes.

What really happened is politicians were afraid. They were not afraid of crashes. They were afraid of blame.

When speed limits are set so everybody is speeding, transportation officials have a ready excuse. Too bad grandma burned to death, drivers tend to speed through that area.

When drivers are within the limit, citizens turn on the authorities. How many more people have to die before you do something that will kill even more people?

Posting very low limits, and especially enforcing them, can increase crash rates. Illinois is putting safety second. Any transportation secretary would do the same. Managing blame is part of the job.

So government officials lie. You knew that already. At least have a little fun with it. Next time a DOT spokesman says “safety,” substitute “puppies.” Or “kittens” if you’re not a dog person. Or “politics” if you’re a realist.

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