Is Speeding Ever Appropriate?

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

On any given road, at any given time, the posted speed limit might be too fast for current conditions — or unrealistically low.

An interstate highway built in the 1950s for safe travel at speeds of 70-75 mph but with a posted maximum of 65 mph today is arguably underposted.

And the same road could be treacherous at 55 mph in January, after a heavy snow.

Most of us adjust our speed to match conditions — irrespective of the posted limit. We notch it down when it’s necessary — and often ignore the posted maximum when it’s below what strikes us as a reasonable, safe speed. But whether we get a ticket depends on how our speed stacks up to that number posted on a sign — whether it’s reasonable or not.

This is arguably the single biggest flaw with speed enforcement in this country. It is both random and arbitrary — with posted limits often bearing little, if any, relationship to safe rates of travel.

The proof of this is the way highway limits were knocked down from 70-75 to 55 from 1974 through 1995, when Congress repealed the “Drive 55” law. For 20 years, it was “speeding” to drive 70 on a highway that had previously been posted 70 mph. Then, at the stroke of a politician’s pen, it was legal to drive 70 again. Clearly, it did not suddenly become safer to drive 70 on the same highway that, literally, the day before the passage of the law, was posted 55. It just became legal where previously it had been illegal.

It had nothing to do with safe, reasonable rates of travel.

Our entire system of traffic enforcement amounts to a cynical dragnet fixated on enforcing what I call “technical fouls” (illegal perhaps but not necessarily unsafe) for the purpose of maximizing the flow of cash into state and county coffers — rather than dealing with genuinely dangerous driving, which includes drivers who drive too slowly — impeding the safe flow of traffic — as much as those who drive excessively fast for the road/conditions.

This system has created an unhealthy adversarial relationship between the motoring public and law enforcement — which has come to be viewed by great swaths of the public as little better than armed tax collectors whose main object is to “harass and collect” rather than to serve and protect.

Clearly, there is something wrong with the way speed limits are enforced when almost all of us — from soccer Moms to businessman Bobs — are routinely in violation of them. If you disagree, then you pretty much have to take the position that almost every driver on the road is willfully reckless, because almost every driver on the road “speeds” nearly every time he or she gets behind the wheel of their car.

The old saw, “speed kills” should be re-stated: It is inappropriate speed that kills.

If, for instance, a driver has the bad judgment to drive at 50 or 60 mph in whiteout conditions during a heavy snowstorm on a highway with a 65 mph maximum, he can’t be charged with speeding — as such. On the flip side, on the very same road in summer, on a bright July day with excellent visibility, another driver can and likely will get nailed for speeding if he has the bad luck to roll past a lurking cop doing 70 — even though he’s not driving dangerously and isn’t likely to be the cause of an accident.

As a result of stuff like this, many of us (me included) have developed a sense of contempt for traffic enforcement. Handing out tickets to people who are just going with the (perfectly reasonable) flow of traffic; setting up “radar traps” to nab the unwary by dropping the posted maximum to silly-low levels (25 or 30-mph on broad, two-lane secondary roads where the flow of traffic is naturally at 40-45) and so on. This may fatten the coffers of state and local government, but it does little to enhance the safety of our roads. And it undermines public respect for police – a dangerous thing.

What’s needed is less focus on arbitrary maximums – and enforcing “technical fouls” — and more emphasis on teaching (and expecting) motorists to use common sense and drive at speeds appropriate (and therefore safe) for conditions. That might mean more work for police than sitting by the side of the road with a radar gun while drinking a cup of coffee and chowing down a Krispy Kreme — but it would make the driving environment a lot safer.

And it would restore the natural balance of mutual respect between police and ordinary citizens.


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