Over Engineering Speed Limits

By an Anonymous NMA Member from Arizona

The government recently lowered the speed limit on my main street from 45 to 40. I calculated that if I lived to the same age as my mother, the reduced speed limit would cost me five days of productive life. Not enough to worry about, but it’s the principle of the thing.

Those folks in the engineering department seem to be looking for excuses to lower the speed limit. The conditions on that main stretch haven’t changed recently, but something happened a mile away from that part of the main street and should not have affected local traffic. If anything, it would improve safety if there were no changes in the speed limit.

On my street, there are six different speed limits in seven miles of road. It starts in the mountains with a speed limit of 25 (almost makes sense because there are lots of curves and blind spots). Then 35 for a very short distance, then 40 mph for about five miles. Then back down to 35, and shortly after that, 25 mph. It might be better to substitute a sign notifying drivers of a coming lower speed limit instead of the two different speed limits. With such frequent changes in the speed limit, exactly where is the line where you must be traveling at the lower speed limit when you cross it anyway?

So why did they lower the speed limit in the neighborhood, at least a mile away from the road improvements? It seems they used the upgrade in the freeway, which crosses our street, as an excuse. Although for the life of me, I don’t know how improved safety at that intersection has a negative impact on safety on my street.

This 25 mph speed limit approaches a brand new improvement in the freeway, with an overpass that eliminates crossing railroad tracks and widens both directions on the freeway by one lane.

After getting off the overpass, it goes up to 45. That makes no sense because that stretch is in town, and there is much more traffic. (Shhh! don’t tell anyone because they might get ideas and lower that speed limit too!)

The 40 mph speed limit is in a residential area that has been built up for years, so there is no change in traffic hazards there, and it is a through street. It will be interesting to see if people abide by the new lower speed limit on the main drag.

When you have lived in the same city for nearly 60 years as I have, you know the speed limits, so when they’ve changed, you might not notice. That has happened to me.

Frequently changing speed limits appear to be a common problem. Traffic engineers make up rules about how fast you should drive on what kind of street, and if the street changes from one type to another, they change the speed limit.

This kind of engineering makes it much harder to obey the speed limit, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that were their aim.

Official-types think they’re improving traffic safety by doing all this speed limit changing. On my street, one change in speed limit would make sense, but not five. This is because part of it goes into the mountains, as I said, and it is challenging to navigate the curves at the higher speed limit. It should be noted that it’s rare for anyone to drive that stretch at any speed below 35, however, even though it is now set at 25.

One neighbor (a traffic engineer) threatened to put “speed” bumps in front of his house. I told him, “If you do, the whole neighborhood would likely sue you.” So, he didn’t.

Some years ago in my city, I frequently traveled one stretch of the road that went past some light industry. The speed limit there was 45. I usually didn’t travel past the cross street, so when I did on one occasion, I traveled at the same speed and got a ticket. On the other side of the intersection, the speed limit was 25. One of the problems there for me was that they placed the speed limit sign too close to the intersection. While I was still thinking about traversing the intersection safely, I passed the sign without noticing it.

Then there was the time when I was driving on the street at night, and there were absolutely no cars anywhere besides mine. I wasn’t in a hurry, but I allegedly unknowingly went faster than the speed limit, so I got a ticket. And how do I know his radar device was working properly? I don’t.

So to avoid points, I took their Safe Driver’s Course. The most noteworthy thing about that class was the total disrespect the instructor showed towards the students. He was rude, overbearing, and treated us like criminals. Do you think that makes people want to be more compliant? I think not.

Another problem I run into is that the light on my dashboard is not bright enough to compete against Arizona sunlight, so I have trouble seeing what speed I am driving.

Add all that up, and I think I am paying far too much attention to speed and speed limits than I should be. My attention should be on the traffic. It only takes a second for a hazard to pop out in front of you, and if you happen to glance down, you may miss it until it is too late to avoid.

Before the national 55 mph speed limit set for a short time as the top speed in the US due to the oil embargo of the 1970s, Arizona included a “reasonable and prudent” phrase in the law. If conditions were good, you could argue that your speed was reasonable and prudent, even if you were driving a bit faster. They need to bring that back. Equally obviously, if it is rainy or icy and the streets are slick, the speed limit is not reasonable or prudent.

As the National Motorists Association mentioned many times, the ideal speed limit is what 85 percent of the traffic usually travels, known as the 85 percent rule. How often do traffic engineers pay attention to that rule? As near as I can tell, they don’t pay any attention whatsoever. And this is partly due to the fact that speed limits are a major moneymaker for police departments, which in many instances seems to be their main purpose.

The way speed limit laws are being used as revenue sources creates a lot of angry people and scofflaws. I have said for years that there is a much more effective way to use speed limits to improve traffic safety.

They shouldn’t enforce speed limits unless someone is clearly driving recklessly. Often police will stop a motorist based on how fast they are going and not necessarily for reckless driving because it’s harder to prove. Suppose real damage occurs and forensic investigations show that exceeding the speed limit was a factor. In that case, your insurance company would not be obliged to pay for the damage to your car. I could guarantee people would be much more careful if that were to happen. The liberty gained thereby would do everyone much more good. Not to mention that in neighborhoods where it is dangerous to drive black, maybe there would be fewer fatal confrontations between police and citizens.

I think we have all agreed for some time that the speed limit laws need serious overhauling, but I don’t know if anyone has considered this particular aspect or not. Maybe it is time we did.

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3 Responses to “Over Engineering Speed Limits”

  1. Geeg says:

    If I were king, speed limits would be set according to objective factors. One real nice one would be uniform MPH visa-vis radius of an approacing curve. Speed limits could be actual valuable information about road geometry. Unfortuanately speed limits are utterly scatteshot as to intent, purpose, enforcement, and driving conditions enough so that they are pretty much worthless except to advise whatever potential legal exposure one is undertaking by exceeding it.

    • Pat says:

      The roads (at least in some states) have advisory speed limits, little yellow squares with a speed in it, so that is helpful concerning road geometry. But it would be too easy to take your suggestion as an excuse to give tickets to people who don\’t drive the speed on the little yellow squares. So be careful! Otherwise, I agree; you said it well. \”Whatever potential legal exposure\”.

  2. Jim Shott says:

    To an Anonymous NMA Member from Arizona. I wholly believe in everything you wrote about. But, as you are aware, no intelligent politician (there’s an oxymoron for you) would ever jeopardize his/her chance to be voted back in to his/her cushy job by even remotely considering an “unsafe” speed to be necessary. And, you know, in this country founded on the fact of unfair taxation is wrong, these politicians have spent hours and hours thinking up ways to fill their coffers by any means using terminology pretending NOT to be a tax. It seems to me that this country, as run by current politicians, has turned into the same diabolical government we fought about all those years ago. And they’re so dense they would not see the resemblance of current policy to the same 250 +/- years ago. I’m with you, brother or sister!