Ups and downs

Like speed policy, drug policy has had cycles driven by a few people.

Starting in the Reefer Madness era, the 1930s, America got tough on drugs. Much of this effort was the result of one man, Harry Anslinger. Think of him as the first drug czar. (His Wikipedia page gives more details, but mainly tells you that Wikipedia editors don’t like him.)

By the 1970s evidence showed that tough on drugs didn’t work. Laws were relaxed.

It’s important to realize what the evidence did and did not show. People weren’t saying that cocaine was good for you, or long term use of amphetamines was safe. The problem was, cracking down hard on drugs was even worse.

And then came Reagan. I don’t know what he thought personally, but his core supporters wanted a war on drugs. They got one.

Between the war on drugs, federal sentencing guidelines, and mandatory minimum sentences, selling drugs became worse than murder. According to Eric Schlosser writing around 2002, the average time served for murder was less than 12 years. Multi-decade sentences for drug distribution are routine in federal courts, and there is no early parole from federal prison.

Similarly, it’s often better to kill somebody than to break the speed limit. I read a story where killing a pedestrian in a crosswalk was a $100 fine. In the same state, 75 in a 55 on an Interstate is a $160 ticket. (Freakonomics looked at the low value placed on life on some streets.) On the Massachusetts Turnpike a conviction for dangerous speed costs $50, half the fine for 1 mph over the speed limit. Legally, actual danger is not as serious as the hypothetical danger from exceeding the number on a sign.

Thank Nixon this time.

In the 1950s and 1960s the debate was over whether to set highway speed limits well above the normal speed of traffic, or not to have speed limits at all. For example, Iowa replaced no speed limit with a 70 mph speed limit at a time when most people kept under 60. People understood that you couldn’t just make up a number at randon.

President Nixon took advantage of the oil embargo to decree a speed limit that everybody would break, and we’ve never returned to the days when obeying the speed limit was normal.

As with drugs, enforcement may be worse than the crime it targets. But this time the problem is much more extreme. Illegal recreational drugs are used by a minority — a large minority, too many to lock up, but still a minority. Speed limits are disobeyed by the vast majority of people.

An NMA activist once told lawmakers about a big problem with their plan for criminal penalties for going 30 mph over the speed limit. The speed limit leading into the Navy base was posted 30 mph under the normal speed of traffic. How many people at the area’s largest employer would lose their jobs for having a criminal record? That bill was left to die. Raising the speed limit was unthinkable — promises had been made — but so was enforcing it.

Much of America has come to a similar conclusion: even where speeding is a crime, it isn’t really a crime. If you have to disclose your criminal record on a civilian job application, you can omit traffic crimes. When a federal judge looks at your criminal record, sentencing guidelines prohibit consideration of speeding tickets.

This is largely because one guy who has been dead for 23 years decided he liked low speed limits.

The opinions expressed in this post belong to the author and do not necessarily represent those of the National Motorists Association or the NMA Foundation. This content is for informational purposes and is not intended as legal advice. No representations are made regarding the accuracy of this post or the included links.

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