Speed Averages

Few people with working brains respect the obviously stupid. Which explains why almost everyone disrespects posted speed limits … by ignoring them.

Any law or edict that is almost universally ignored can be safely presumed stupid. Or — as here — cynically dismissed as a tool for separating people’s money from their persons. Most speed limits (and thus, speeding tickets) fall into this latter category.

None of this is news.

But because speed limits exist as an artificial barometer of reasonable maximum velocities, there is the problem of a generally distorted perception of what constitutes reasonable average velocities.

The Clover who mopes along at say 44 in a 45 contents himself with the thought that he is “doing the speed limit” and feels righteous or at least, justified, about not yielding to the faster-moving traffic stacking up behind him. Even though almost everyone is doing more than the limit — or at least, trying to — he does not question the reasonableness of the statute. Typically, he defends it. Takes the position that whatever the posted maximum is, the fact that it is posted constitutes definitive proof that it is the balls-to-the-wall highest safe speed; that anyone (which is almost everyone) who drives faster deserves a ticket.

And — in his defense — if the lawful maximum is 45, going any faster does expose him to being ticketed.

We all live in constant dread of this.

Which fact explains both the characteristically bunched-up traffic that defines American roadways and the resigned passivity of most American drivers — who have been conditioned to be positively terrified of acceleration.

Never in the history of the car has the average, nothing-special A to B transportation appliance been as potent as today — yet traffic probably flows no faster than it did in 1970 and probably slower, because the consequences for daring to use even 80 percent of the capability of, say, a new Toyota Corolla entail more grief than using 100 percent of the capability of a new Z28 did back in 1970.

If, on the other hand, the speed limit comported with a velocity considerably higher than the just-moping-along average speed of traffic, it would be obvious — even to a Clover — that his low-average velocity is clogging up the works. Social — and legal — pressure would bear down on him.

He’d feel obliged to at least yield.

And — at a stroke — probably two-thirds of what today constitutes illegal (and highly profitable to the state) “speeding” offenses would vanish and the rest of it would be much harder to characterize as a horrific offense against reasonable conduct behind the wheel, as now.

Revenue would of course decrease — but traffic congestion would ease because people would no longer feel so targeted when driving at reasonable speeds.

All of this strikes me as a capital idea. And it’s not just my idea, either.

Speed limits are supposed to be more than just speed averages. They are supposed to be set according to a standard higher than the average. It’s what a limit (or maximum) implies.

How to do this?

Traffic is monitored and the speed limit set such that only about 15 percent of the cars are traveling faster while the remaining 85 percent are traveling at approximately that rate. This “85th percentile” method (see here for technical details) is supposed to be the method for setting speed limits, if we must have them at all. But it’s rarely used anymore, because if it were used, the number of “speeders” would be much reduced — and with it, both “revenue” and the excuse necessary to justify its snatching.

The object of the exercise is not the facilitation of safe, efficient travel but rather the issuance of as many tickets as possible.

This is admitted, often openly.

For example, a memo issued to the highwaymen of Fairfax County, Virginia:

“Two traffic stops is the minimum acceptable daily average, calculated on a monthly basis. Either two summons and one warning must be issued and entered per day on average. (Two warnings are not acceptable). All days, all officers are required to be well-rounded in their production, regardless of minimum standards.”

The bolding, underlining and italics are not mine. They are in the original.

“Well-rounded in their production.”




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