By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
On the main road that bisects my rural county, I typically lope along at 75 or so. This, to me — for me — is a reasonable speed. It’s within my comfort zone. Not so fast that I feel I’m pushing my limits as a driver — or the limits of the car. I state this as a mature adult who has taken several high-performance driving courses, drives professionally to earn my living (test driving/evaluating new cars) and who — most relevantly — has not had an accident in decades of driving. One of two things must be true: Either I am very lucky — or I am a responsible, careful driver.
The speed limit, however, is 55.
This means I am usually driving much faster than is legally permissible. In fact, in my state (Virginia) it is technically “reckless driving” to exceed any posted limit by more than 20 MPH. That means 76 in a 55 — even if 55 is palpably ridiculous, almost universally ignored — and doing 76 is not much faster than the normal flow of traffic on that road.
A fundamental problem — technically, not ethically — with speed limits is they are one-size-fits-all, the “size” typically being a half-blind, borderline senile, fearful/timid and poorly skilled driver — for whom that speed might indeed be the limit — the fastest they probably ought to be driving (if they ought to be driving at all).
But what if that’s not you?
What if you can safely — based on objective criteria — operate at a faster clip? Why is it wrong for you to do so? And why should you be punished for doing so?
Consider other life situations. We don’t (yet) put the smart kids on the short bus. Insist that the expert skier take the bunny hop course. Are sprinters forced to limit their pace to that of the slowest runner? When you are out walking in public, do you expect others to walk no faster than you’re walking?
These, of course, are not exact parallels, but the fundamental point does apply. People are individuals — and individuals vary in almost every conceivable way, including their skill behind the wheel. Some are much better — and some much worse — than others. This is as self-evident as the fact that some people are better athletes than others, can tackle advanced math more adeptly than some can deal with basic arithmetic. And so on, throughout and across the spectrum of human life.
Speed limits — to be generous for the sake of this discussion, let us assume they are not set over-low deliberately, for purposes of mulcting motorists — are typically set on the assumption that everyone is worse. No, it’s more than merely that. Speed limits require every driver to drive at the level of the worst drivers. Those who refuse to get on the short bus — so to speak — are punished for not following the rules.
Not because they are bad (or dangerous) drivers.
As a result, there is a gross (and growing) disconnect between “crime” and “punishment.” Meaning, people who know they’ve done no wrong, who were in full control of their vehicle, are nonetheless punished — with ever-increasing severity. See, for instance, Virginia’s “reckless driving” statute, which imposes four figure fines and the possibility of jail time merely for driving in excess of 20 MPH faster than any posted limit. This is a fundamental injustice — and bad social policy besides. One of the main reasons otherwise straight-and-narrow citizens are becoming ever-more-contemptuous of police is that they view them as thieves acting under color of law. The roadside prattle about “safety” and “do you know how fast you were going” is insufferable cant. It’s a shakedown, legalized robbery — nothing more.
This tends to piss people off.
The system would work a whole let better if it permitted what ought to be SOP in an allegedly free society — the exercise of judgment and the individual assumption of responsibility for the consequences. Why not, in other words, let drivers gauge the “right” speed for themselves? Some will drive faster than others are comfortable with — just as others will drive more slowly than others are comfortable with. But neither is a safety issue — as such (provided each type of driver is courteous and neither crowds slower-moving drivers nor attempts to box in faster-moving drivers).
If a driver causes an accident, hold him accountable — irrespective of the speed he happened to be driving at the time. It’s not the speed that’s relevant — it’s that an accident happened.
A free society needs — no, requires — people who are not biological automata. Who are capable of evaluating a situation and taking appropriate action on their own initiative. Without being punished for doing so. For transgressing some arbitrary rule.
The immediate objection — in some quarters — will be that absent one-size-fits-all, without arbitrary rules, people would just run amok. Drive 100 MPH through subdivisions, half-empty fifth of Jack Daniels in one hand, cell phone in the other — steering by knee. It’s ridiculous — unless you take the position that most or even many people are reckless (actually reckless), even sociopathic. As unconcerned about their own lives as they are about the lives of others.
The fact is, most people do behave. Act reasonably, with consideration for others. Without need of laws to tell them to — and not because they fear being punished. With regard to driving, most people want to arrive alive — and drive accordingly. Like me, they drive within their limits, within their comfort zone. Just like most people who own guns handle them responsibly, do not shoot up schools, do not shoot themselves.
It’s the people who can’t control themselves who have this mania to control others — who assume the worst about others because they know, in their hearts, the truth about themselves.
These people are the problem.
Me? I’m getting tired of being held accountable for what other people do. Being punished, not because I’ve caused anyone any harm but merely because I chose not to get on the short bus, grin like an imbecile and accept being treated like an imbecile because some people are imbeciles.
Aren’t you getting tired of it, too?