Recently I’ve been lusting for a genuine, 186 mph grand tourer. However, that gets me thinking – despite being able to cop-proof the entire car, there is still a very real risk of legal repurcussion should one decide to actually stretch the legs of such a car. The reality is that despite today’s roads being safer than ever, despite today’s cars being more capable than ever, the anachronism that is the 55 mph speed limit still exists across the nation, despite the option to choose otherwise.
The original 55 mph speed limit was imposed by Congress in March of 1974 as an attempt to deal with the 1973 oil crisis and reduce energy consumption. It has since been repealed, allowing states to impose their own speed limits – so why are speed limits still so artificially low, particularly when one considers the capability of modern cars on modern roads?
There is lots of data indicating that reducing one’s speed does increase one’s fuel economy – its simple math, because the faster one goes, the more power required to maintain that speed. This formula in fact squares the velocity – so if you want to go twice as fast, you would need 4 times as much power, etc . . . This is why the European Union has continued to place pressure on Germany to remove its unrestricted segments of the Autobahn.
However, this is legislative nannyism. Who is the state to dictate its people’s environmental policies – well, obviously the state looks out for the welfare of the people. So, assuming the state does have the right to dictate environmental policies, would it not make more sense for the state to impose a higher tax on gasoline, thereby encouraging fuel efficient driving behaviors and purchasing choices, rather than mandating that ALL members of its society conform to an absolutely ludicrous and artificially low speed limit? That way, if I want to drive a V12 supercoupe, that’s my choice, and I can pay for the privilege of that externality while everyone else gets to benefit from increased tax revenue due to a higher gas tax. That’s true liberal economics (people today use the words liberal and conservative without understanding what they actually mean).
So, from an environmental standpoint, yes, it makes sense but the consumer should be able to make the choice. However, from a safety standpoint the 55 mph speed limit makes little to no sense. The danger is not speed. The danger is variances in speed, and distracted driving.
The German Autobahn (and pretty much all of Europe, with much higher speed limits) has again proven that high speed is safe. An intense federal study found that speed limits in America are set too low, and do next to nothing for safety. In fact, it found that the speed limit should be set to the prevailing speed of traffic, or higher – finding that those who travel outside the prevailing speed of traffic (both faster and slower) were the cause of accidents and dangers on the highway. It found that the vast majority of roads in America have limits far lower than what is safe, reasonable, or prudent.
Furthermore, if our government were truly interested in protecting us from ourselves, it would raise the penalties on distracted driving. There are hundreds of studies out there showing that the act of talking on the cell phone (hands free or not) is dangerous. And no one is in debate that texting while driving is dangerous. In fact, one study found texting while driving was worse than driving drunk. New York State has recently upgraded distracted driving from a simple revenue generating fine to one that carries points, and I honestly believe that this is a step in the right direction.
Finally, consider that speed cameras and red light cameras actually cause accidents! Motorists who are aware of these traps slam on the brakes, dramatically increasing rear end collisions, or drive erratically to avoid these traps. Despite the knowledge that speed cameras and red light cameras actually increase danger to motorists, municipalities across the nation are increasing there use – why would our own government want to harm us?
The 55 mph speed limit exists to generate revenue. Nothing more, nothing less. The same with speed cameras and red light cameras. The 55 mph speed limit does not improve safety. The red light camera and speed camera decrease safety. The government maintains them under the pretense of safety in order to engage in random acts of taxation.
Now, I would be less pissed off if our governments simply came out and said that they were doing this for money – or at least came up with the pretense that artificially low speed limits are there for environmental purposes. The sad reality is that speed limits across the nation are artificially low simply as a means for revenue generation. Cash strapped municipalities refuse to take the austerity measures necessary to lower spending, or increase taxes on their own people and insist on spending above and beyond their means, instead supplementing their revenues with random acts of taxation, frequently on people other than their own citizens (who usually know where the speed traps are).
The final insult to injury are driver assessments. States across the nation (the most high profile one being Virginia) have started imposing surcharges upon motorists for bad driving records. This is not a fine imposed by a court. Rather, it is an act of double taxation which I question the legitimacy of, whereby when an individual accumulates a certain number of points or is charged with certain offenses (reckless, DWI, etc) they are then hit with an astronomical surcharge. What is done with the money? Is it used to deal with the externalities of these bad behaviors and remedy the problems that result from antisocial actions? Doubtful. More often than not it is used to pad failing budgets that are the direct result of incompetent and thoughtless individuals with the fiscal discipline of an 8 year old.
So what can we, as drivers, do in the face of such draconian speed enforcement in America? I don’t propose a solution because I don’t have answers.