In search of numerate reporters

A reporter who is more interested in writing a drama than telling the facts said “what safety advocates predicted and feared” happened after South Dakota raised the speed limit from 75 to 80.

What happened was the enforcement threshold went up from 86 to 88 and the number of speeding tickets increased while highways remained safe.

Unfortunately the reporter talked to a ticketing industry lobbying group in D.C. to interpret the data, and the “sky is falling” article went national. That’s all it was, Chicken Little. The lobbyists told him drivers are going faster and killing people. If he’d called NMA HQ in nearby Wisconsin he could have learned the data said no such thing.

Typical speeds written on speeding tickets went up a little while the total number of speeding tickets went up a lot. Meanwhile, “The number of fatal crashes in South Dakota were at their second lowest last year in more than 55 years.”

Keep in mind, these are not measurements of traffic speed. These are speeds of people who got speeding tickets.

The figures are consistent with people driving like they always did while police enforce the new limit more strictly. Not “strictly” — that would be millions of tickets per year. “More strictly.” Like getting ticketed for 8 over.

Except police don’t have to write the real speed. It’s very common for police to write a lower speed to save the driver a fine. (Or points, but they don’t have points for speeding in South Dakota.) If the boss said “write twice as many tickets” the trooper might say to himself “…for half the dollar amount.”

It’s also plausible that the “pull speed” went up 5 mph along with the speed linit. I’ll illustrate with an exaggerated example. Suppose a lot of people are between 80 and 90 but nobody drives over 90. If police start pulling people over at 80 in a 75 zone, the average ticket will be for about 85. If police start pulling people over at 85 in an 80 zone, the average ticket will be 87 or 88. It looks like they got stricter (7 over instead of 10), but they didn’t.

Which of these is the truth? My instinct says the real speed limit, the speed that risks a ticket, went up 2-3 mph. I can’t prove it. There’s no evidence that speeds went up. The DOT might have such evidence. Ticket records do not.

Since traffic safety is near record levels, the sky obviously did not fall whatever the speed of traffic.

The real story is you’re more likely to get a speeding ticket for speeds over 85 or 90 than you used to be, and less likely to get a speeding ticket for less than 85.

Police fought for months to avoid revealing that information. Under state law it’s public. To police it’s sensitive information about secret law enforcement investigative procedures.

Here’s another statistic they didn’t want you to know: there were 131 tickets for 82 to 84 mph. These are pretext stops or bad attitude tickets. Trivial speed limit violations are a South Dakota favorite pretext. I hope the 80 mph speed limit saved a few pretext stops. Maybe not. Police have more violations in their toolkit.

I still don’t think South Dakota needs a speed limit, but as long as it has one it should be less of a lie. The 80 mph limit is less of a lie.

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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