Society Magazine

Speeding and Its Discontents

Posted on the 24 June 2011 by Conroy @conroyandtheman
by Conroy
[Note: John Fowles wrote that "all cynicism masks a failure to cope." This is likely true, and perhaps you'll recognize that sentiment in this post, but what follows does have basis in reality.]
Speeding and its DiscontentsSpeed kills, or so the saying goes. Speeding might be dangerous, but one thing is for certain, driving faster than the posted speed limit can get you a citation, fine, and if egregious enough, affect your license and insurance. As a basic idea this works, travel too fast, unsafe for a given road, and you'll be penalized. Like other law enforcement activities, speed enforcement is intended to protect other drivers, pedestrians, and the public at large from dangerous behavior. That's the theory anyway, the reality is something different.
Attitudes about speeding vary greatly, but I like the old George Carlin joke:
"Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?"
So true. For full disclosure, I'm a "maniac" not an "idiot", but still, based on my observations how many "idiots" are actually traveling below the speed limit? Not many. This reality has always bothered me and I have two major objections to speed limits and enforcement: (1) speed limits are set and apply equally to any driver on the road irrespective of their vehicle, experience, or outside conditions, and (2) speed enforcement, in real life, is sporadic and arbitrary. I'm not the only one to hold these objections, and I think this perspective is valid enough to call into question the standard approaches to speed enforcement.
Speed Limits
Speeding and its DiscontentsLet's consider speed limits first. As a transportation engineer, I'm an expert on road design, so let me share a few insights on how speed limits are determined. First, roads are designed based on their context (rural, urban, flat, hilly), classification (freeway, arterial, local road, etc.), and an associated "design speed". This means the various characteristics of a road, curves (horizontal and vertical), cross slope, lane widths, roadside features, etc. are set based on idealized vehicle characteristics and driver behavior at that speed. As a general rule, it is accepted by traffic engineers that drivers will travel over a road at the speed at which they are comfortable. The wider, straighter, flatter the road, the faster drivers will travel. The measured 85th percentile speed of all vehicles is often used to derive this comfortable operating speed. In practice, a very small percentage of drivers will actually travel at an unsafe speed for the design of the road. Speed limits are supposed to be set based on the design speed. But often for political reasons speed limits are set artificially low. Think of how you frequently see speed limits drop by 10 mph just as you enter the jurisdiction of a small town. That's one problem.

Another broader issue is the static nature of speed limits. In order for it to be an enforceable statute, a speed limit must be one set value that applies to all vehicles. There's no consideration taken for driver experience and skill. Like all activities, driving skill varies widely from individual to individual; a fact all driver can relate to on a day-to-day basis. There's also the driver's attention...most certainly not always focused on, well, driving instead of talking on a cell phone, talking to passengers, eating food, or most recklessly, texting. Similarly, there's no consideration of vehicle characteristics, a sports car handles far better than a tractor-trailer. What about the condition of a vehicle? How good are the tires, brakes, headlights, and other aspects that can affect the ability to see, maneuver, and decelerate? Also, what about ambient conditions? Is it dark, raining, foggy? And then there's the behavior of the other drivers on the road. Yet none of these widely varying factors are considered in the letter of the law. Or put differently, travel at a given speed for a given driver in a given vehicles might exceed the posted speed limit but might not be unsafe.
Speed Enforcement
My second issue is speed enforcement, at least in the United States. Generally, speed enforcement occurs at random. Certainly sections of a road may be targeted more frequently than others, but police usually conduct enforcement more randomly, which makes it harder for drivers to predict where police might be. Ostensibly, this is a smart way to use limited resources to suppress overall speeds. But the reality is that drivers feel ambushed by police. I doubt any driver who spots a police officer conducting speed enforcement fails to immediately hit the brakes and check the speedometer. The reaction is out of fear of getting pulled over; the feeling of guilt - even when there was no speeding.

Speeding and its Discontents

Active speed enforcement

The extreme version of this type of enforcement are speed traps intentionally set-up to catch speeders. Small towns are notorious for this type of enforcement. As I noted above, often speed limits are substantially reduced upon entering municipal jurisdictions. These speed limits are only very loosely connected to safety. Instead they are used to catch drivers and assess a fine; to collect revenue. Here's a link to locate speed traps near you.
Add to this the fact that a great many drivers have been in situations where they were speeding and went past a police officer without being pulled over, and other times when a seemingly minor infraction yielded a citation. The sense is that anecdotal stories of pretty women charming their way out of a ticket. And officers are given the option of issuing a warning instead of a citation, but anyone who has experienced the sweet relief of a warning never really knows why they were so lucky.

Speeding and its Discontents

Traffic court

It's this combination of feeling surprised, whether through random enforcement or intentional speed traps, and confused as to how capriciously the police officer may behave, that people resent. The perception is that tickets are issued only to generate revenue for a municipality or state. This perception is often bolstered by the legal side of speed enforcement. Anyone who has received a ticket knows that they can go to court to either plead "not guilty" or "guilty with an explanation". More likely than not, if you go to court and plead guilty the judge will relieve you of the "points" associated with the violation and that can affect your car insurance. You'll likely get a reduction in the fine as well - but, you'll have to pay something. Recently, I was in court for a ticket (and yes that's what partly inspired this post). I watched as several dozen people before me all went in front of the judge for traveling between 10 and 20 mph over the speed limit. All were subject to multiple points and a fine. All, let me repeat, all (including me), were relieved of their points and had their fines reduced. What message does this send? To me it says, speed and you'll pay some money, but the state/county/city does not take your violation serious enough to affect your driving record. Or to put it differently, speeding is a way for the state/county/city to raise funds but not an issue that is serious enough to apply a meaningful penalty.
Speed Cameras

Speeding and its Discontents

Speed camera

More and more, speed cameras are being installed to catch speeding at roads, intersections, and work zones. In theory I support speed cameras in that they are effective in slowing vehicles at specific locations and at all times. If crash data or other conditions warrant slower speeds, these types of installations make sense. However, speed cameras are not able to determine who is driving a vehicle. As a result, the owner of a vehicle may be fined for an infraction they didn't even commit. That can be frustrating (and hopefully they can get reimbursed by their friend or relative who were at fault).
Also, speed cameras are often installed without specific cause. For examples, Maryland recently passed legislation allowing speed cameras. Baltimore interpreted this law to mean that cameras can be installed on any road within one-half mile of a school. The stated purpose is to enhance road safety near schools, but in practical terms, the entire city falls within the limits of this rule. Safety may or may not be enhanced, but money will be raised from speeders. Moreover, speed cameras will only be successful in reducing speeds if their location is clearly known to drivers. Too often signing noting that speed is "photo enforced" is hidden or unclear. These facts just add to the suspicion that speed enforcement, regardless of the method, exists not for safety but to raise revenue.
A Better Solution
There are better approaches. I agree intellectually that speed enforcement is necessary. Unsafe driving is a danger and our roads and highways cannot be a free-for-all. Unlike say, the German autobahns, Amercian drivers are not sufficiently trained for using highways at very high speeds. Nor are American roads generally designed for such high-speed travel. In urban areas, the additions of congestion, frequent access, other road users, etc. require limits. However, under most reasonable conditions there are only limited resources available for speed enforcement. These resources would be better used if speed limits and speed enforcement were focused in the following four ways:
  • Speed limits should be consistent along a road where conditions are also consistent. And speed limits should be based on the design speed - the comfortable operating speed - unless there is a compelling reason to lower the speed limit. 
  • Speed enforcement should occur in locations where speed-related accidents are most frequent. This data is collected by every transportation agency and police force. 
  • Police should focus on truly dangerous driving. Goring 40 mph in a 30 mph zone early on a clear morning (my recent indiscretion) is a poor method of enforcement. Instead, enforcement should be targeted at those traveling well in excess of the speed limit (this would vary based on the speed limit and context); speeding during poor weather or light conditions; and speeding near schools, parks, or other areas with many pedestrians. 
  • For these types of violations, the legal enforcement must be strict and consistent. Points and fines should be applied as noted in the law. Several violations over a defined timeframe would result in heavier fines and ultimately suspension of the person's driving license. Treat the violations as serious offenses.
These approaches, enforcement in high  accident locations, enforcement for truly dangerous driving, and strict application of the legal penalties would have the desired effect of increasing road safety. Consistent and clear enforcement would allow drivers to better understand acceptable driving behavior, and this would have the ancillary effect of greatly reducing the cynicism and resentment that many people feel toward speeding laws.
Speeding and its Discontents

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