Why have speed limits?

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People who ask this question usually have a political agenda. They want to argue the local or state government is using the fines to pad out the state budget. The more police issue tickets, the smaller the deficit. These people almost always assert they are good drivers. They claim never to have had an accident. They say they are safe driving at high speeds. They think speed limits are for the poor drivers.

The problem with this argument is that it ignores all the evidence. No matter which country you go to, their road safety data shows there are fewer accidents when the speed limits are reduced. Better still, there are fewer deaths and less serious injuries.

Why is driving slowly safer?

It’s a simple matter of physics. Vehicles have mass. Once you start them in motion, they develop momentum. With speed comes greater kinetic energy. So if you crash into another vehicle or a static object at speed, the damage is greater. As a driver, you also have less time to react in an emergency. The risk of an accident is higher.

What has happened to speed limits?

Rather like sunspot activity and the length of ladies skirts, speed limits have gone up and down. When there’s a crisis in the supply or the cost of gas, the limits fall because driving slowly uses less fuel. But when it comes to pleasing voters, the government can use the improvement in the design of safety features to justify increasing the limits. This can get them reelected. Except when the speed limits rise, so do the numbers of people injured and killed.

Why do drivers believe themselves safe?

If you look at the accident statistics, there are so many drivers on the road, many go through their lives without ever having an accident. In real terms, crashes are actually quite rare per thousand miles traveled. So many people feel they are entitled to think their driving is good enough to avoid an accident. This is a mistake. It simply means they were one of the majority and lucky enough not to crash. The reality is we would all be safer if we walked everywhere. Any attempt to justify one speed limit over another is just balancing the statistical risks against the politics of what people believe and how they drive.

The politics of driving

We often think the police should focus their efforts on catching the dangerous people who may also be violent. Any effort to look at the way we drive is an attack on our liberty and right to drive badly. We don’t see the law limiting speed as “real” or justifying fines. That why some suggest the government collects the fines to bridge the deficit. Car insurance companies get dragged into the conspiracy theory because they increase the premium rates when we pick up speeding tickets. States benefit. Car insurance companies make more profit. We are victims. If only people looked at the big picture, they would see how many are actually inured or killed, and act less selfishly by driving more slowly and safely.

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