Drive 55 Everywhere . . . Or Less

Speed limits are about to become limitless as in, whatever those who set them say they are.

This has always been true, to an extent in that all speed limits are, to a degree, arbitrary. People are subject to a ticket, i.e., being extorted by armed government workers, acting on behalf of the government simply for driving faster than a number posted (by the government) on a sign.

There is an asserted correlation between driving faster than whatever the number on the sign happens to be and the odds of an accident occurring. The assertion is not the fact.

But to date, there has been a mitigating degree of objectivity. It is called the 85th percentile speed. It refers to the number you get when you watch and record the flow of traffic on a given stretch of road, and it means the speed that almost all the cars do not drive much faster than, irrespective of whatever the number on the sign happens to be.

This speed is taken to be a more-or-less reasonable a safe speed for the road on that basis since it is assumed that most people haven’t got a death wish and will naturally operate at speeds that are reasonable for the road and conditions as well as their own skills and the capabilities of their vehicle.

Credit: MarkBuckawicki

A federal regulatory publication styled the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) published by the Federal Highway Administration, which advises explicitly using the 85th percentile rule to set formal speed limits, usually within 5 MPH of the observed 85th percentile speed.

The idea has been to set the limit such that most drivers aren’t “guilty” of “speeding” for driving at reasonable, safe speeds and subject to trumped-up tickets on that basis.

Also, to encourage mostly uniform speed, which is itself a traffic safety consideration. The phenomenon of speed variance—some cars moving much faster or much more slowly than other cars—creates less predictable conditions, and that can be a problem, too. At least, when other drivers aren’t regularly scanning mirrors and keeping track of their vehicle’s position relative to other traffic.

Credit: Oliver Charles

That problem, of course, could be significantly diminished by improving the general cut of the average driver’s jib as by expecting more of drivers, as in Germany. Speed variance on the Autobahn can be in excess of 100 MPH (a Porsche running 180 and a Ford Focus doing 80). The driver of the Ford keeps out of the left lane unless they are passing someone doing 60. Drivers are expected to be constantly looking for the Porsche so as not to be in its way. If a driver sees flashing headlights coming up in his rearview, he or she moves right immediately. The Porsche expects this courtesy and doesn’t have to worry about slamming on his brakes to avoid a discourteous and a dangerously oblivious driver.

The Autobahn can have no speed limits, with a lower incidence of accidents, than the U.S. Interstate Highway system because more is expected of German drivers.

We have the 85th percentile speed, which has at least served to delegitimize speed limits set well below it and harder to legitimize the kinds of egregious speed limit enforcement made infamous by small towns that derived much of their “revenue” via them.

The absurd 55 MPH National Maximum Speed Limit (NMSL) lowered 85th percentile highway speed limits from 70-75 MPH to 55, for almost 20 years, from the mid-1970s through the mid-1990s.

Millions of Americans were “pulled over” and essentially robbed at gunpoint both by the man with the gun and then by the insurance man for driving at speeds that had been legal and were within the 85th percentile before the arbitrary reduction of those posted speed limits by 15-20 MPH.

Credit: Ken Lund

We may soon not even have the 85th percentile speed as a bulwark against completely arbitrary speed limits and ferocious enforcement everywhere.

The Federal Highway Administration is apparently about to toss the requirement in the MUTCD that posted speed limits conform with and are based upon the 85th percentile speed.

What this means, in simple terms, is that states, counties, and cities would be unbound from any obligation to limit how low they decree speed limits to be, according to any objective standard. (You can review the full text of the proposed changes here.)

Instead, local/state bureaucrats would be free to post limits according to whatever they say—whatever they assert—to be “safe” speeds. It would be the return of Drive 55 with a vengeance.

And, worse.

It’s no longer 1974, and the technological means for mass enforcement exists—automated traffic enforcement cameras and in-car surveillance. Most new cars now can monitor, record, and transmit how fast the car is traveling in real-time, all the time. Every “violation” of arbitrary speed limits could be taken note of as it occurs and the driver automatically dunned, as by an instant “adjustment” of his insurance premium or even perhaps by an automatic deduction of the automated fine from his bank account.

Such things already occur in European countries and could just as easily be practiced here. They already are, to some degree, if you drive commercially. These vehicles are often equipped with such technology, which is why one often sees these vehicles operating within the letter of whatever the law happens to be, no matter how unsafe that might be.

Credit: Martin Gillet

Driving is under systematic attack to achieve less driving—something openly espoused by “new urbanist” advocates of such things as Vision Zero.

A very effective way to attack driving is to make it both miserable and expensive, which would be achieved by getting rid of the MUTCD’s 85th percentile standard, a kind of Second Amendment for driving rights.

The National Motorists Association, which was largely responsible for getting the 55 MPH National Maximum Speed Limit repealed back in the mid-1990s and after almost 20 years of serial abuse of American motorists, is leading the fight to keep the 85th percentile rule on the MUTCD “books.” To maintain at least some objective pressure to set speed limits that correlate somewhat with reasonable speeds.

NMA is a great resource and an ally of drivers. Here are two recent alerts that have gone out to supporters asking them to comment on the MUTCD:

Here’s a link to additional NMA material on the subject of speed limits.  And here’s the link to the Federal Highway Administration’s public comment area, which closes May 14th.

If this isn’t stopped, we’re all likely to be stopped and mulcted. Over and over and over, again. Perhaps to the point that we’ll give up on driving altogether.

Eric Peters lives in Virginia and enjoys driving cars and motorcycles. In the past, Eric worked as a car journalist for many prominent mainstream media outlets. Currently, he focuses his time writing auto history books, reviewing cars, and blogging about cars+ for his website EricPetersAutos.com.

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