Is it Ever OK to Speed?

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On any given road, at any given time, the posted speed limit might be too fast for current conditions – or unrealistically low.

An interstate highway built in the 1950s for safe travel at speeds of 70-75 mph but with a posted maximum of 65 mph today is arguably underposted.

And the same road could be treacherous at 55 mph in January, after a heavy snow.

Most of us adjust our speed to match conditions – no matter what the posted limit is. We notch it down when it’s necessary – as in poor weather – and (usually) ignore the posted maximum when it’s obviously ridiculous (as in the case of “Drive 55”). 

But whether we get a ticket depends on how our speed stacks up to that number posted on a sign – whether it’s reasonable or not.

This is arguably the single biggest flaw with speed enforcement in this country. It is both random and arbitrary – with posted limits often bearing little, if any, relationship to safe rates of travel. The proof of this is the way highway limits were knocked down from 70-75 to 55 from 1974 through 1995, when Congress repealed the “Drive 55” law. For 20 years, it was “speeding” to drive 70 on a highway that had previously been posted 70 mph. Then, at the stroke of a politician’s pen, it was legal to drive 70 again. Clearly, it did not suddenly become safer to drive 70 on the same highway that, literally, the day before the passage of the law, was posted 55.

It just became legal where previously it had been illegal.

It had nothing to do with safe, reasonable rates of travel.

Our entire system of traffic enforcement amounts to a cynical dragnet fixated on enforcing what I call “technical fouls” (illegal perhaps but not necessarily unsafe) for the purpose of maximizing the flow of cash into state and county coffers – rather than dealing with genuinely dangerous driving, which includes drivers who drive too slowly and refuse to yield –  impeding the safe flow of traffic.

This system has created an unhealthy adversarial relationship between the motoring public and law enforcement – which has come to be viewed by great swaths of the public as little better than armed tax collectors whose main object is to “harass and collect” rather than to serve and protect.

Clearly, there is something wrong with the way speed limits are enforced when almost all of us – from soccer Moms to businessman Bobs – are routinely in violation of them. If you disagree, then you pretty much have to take the position that almost every driver on the road is willfully reckless, because almost every driver on the road “speeds” nearly every time he or she gets behind the wheel of their car.

The old saw, “speed kills” should be re-stated: It is inappropriate speed that kills. That can be too fast for conditions – or too slow

If, for instance, a driver has the bad judgment to drive at 50 or 60 mph in whiteout conditions during a heavy snowstorm on a highway with a 65 mph maximum, he can’t be charged with speeding. On the flip side, on the very same road in summer, on a bright July day with excellent visibility, another driver can and likely will get nailed for speeding if he has the bad luck to roll past a lurking cop doing 70 – even though he’s not driving dangerously and isn’t likely to be the cause of an accident.

Meanwhile, the idiot who stops his car on a freeway merge lane – and then pulls into traffic doing 70  – rarely, if ever gets hassled by the cops. 

As a result of stuff like this, many of us (me included) have developed contempt for traffic enforcement. Handing out tickets to people who are just going with the (perfectly reasonable) flow of traffic; setting up “radar traps” to nab the unwary by dropping the posted maximum to silly-low levels (25 or 30-mph on broad, two-lane secondary roads where the flow of traffic is naturally at 40-45) and so on. This may fatten the coffers of state and local government, but it does little to enhance the safety of our roads. And it undermines public respect for police – a dangerous thing.

What’s needed is less focus on arbitrary maximums – and enforcing “technical fouls” – and more emphasis on teaching (and expecting) motorists to use common sense and drive at speeds appropriate (and therefore safe) for conditions. That might mean more work for police than sitting by the side of the road with a radar gun while drinking a cup of coffee and chowing down a Crispy Creme – but it would make the driving environment a lot safer.

And it would restore the natural balance of mutual respect between police and ordinary citizens.

Throw it in the Woods?


  1. I completely agree with every point you made, Eric. I would also go so far as to say that these technical faults should be expunged from the laws. They are a means to harass and collect.

    I would also like to see a city (any city; I even proposed this to the nearest large city) do away with traffic enforcement altogether, since the main motive is not the overall safety of the driving public. I witness many drivers that do not properly time their approach to highways, and decide to stop at the end of the ramp, making it impossible for them to merge properly onto a highway where everyone is traveling 65 or 70. Everything about traffic enforcement is based upon the idea that something bad MIGHT happen, instead of whether something really happened. Every driver that passes the officially-posted speed number does not cause an accident. Every driver who makes a right turn on red does not crash another vehicle. And every driver who just makes a rolling stop at a stop sign at a rural four-way does not kill a pedestrian.

    If enforcement of technical faults were decreased or curtailed, the police can actually work on crimes against people and property. All the while, they can stop harassing motorists for broken tail lights.

  2. Often it’s because there really IS a yield sign at the merge. Since onramp traffic has to wait a car at a time for a gap in traffic at the right lane, as many right lanes as merging, all lanes of the carriageway, or all lanes of ALL carriageways*, depending on the law, most of the time they stop at the entering gore since to do otherwise is failure to yield (to faster traffic).

    *Yes, depending on your jurisdiction you may have to yield to the entire freeway; I suspect this is on the books because of roundabouts.

  3. Speeding tickets are just revenue generators for local government. If they wanted to really stop all speeding they could set up cameras on every road and bust everyone going over the limit, which would eventually force almost universal compliance.

    Semi funny story…. years ago I went before a judge to protest a speeding ticket, the officer wrote on the ticket that I was going 44 in a 35 zone (11 over) but wrote me out a ticket for going 5 over. Of course they do this all the time, when they hand you the ticket they act as if it’s a “favor” they are doing for you by only giving you the 5 over, which costs less (of course).

    So when the judge asked me why I was contesting the ticket I told him I didn’t believe the officer put down the correct speed, he asked me why and I told him: “how can you trust a guy that says you were doing one speed but gives you a ticket for something else?” So the judge asks do I want the ticket for 11 over instead, and I say no, and he goes: pay the fine, next case.

    • comment on ‘funny story’ about LAW AND JUSTICE and TRUTH
      in U.S. of America.

      1.)the ‘system’ is PRE-judiced against the motorist.
      2.)it is designed to encourage ILLEGAL BEHAVIOR and thus
      cynicism. for after all, we expect our POLITICAL LEADERS to
      lie. Richard Nixon – I am not a crook.
      3.)police officer allegedly committed PERJURY.
      4.)lying before a judge – serious offense.
      5.)impersonating a member of CONGRESS. The basis of
      government is separation of powers. The police are NOT the
      judge, jury, executioner and CONGRESSMAN all at the same
      time. Sarcastic humor – except when they speed, kill innocent
      citizens to ‘catch the bad guy.’
      If the police want to go ‘lightly’ on speeders, then why not
      multiple BANK ROBBERS?
      6.)Obviously, the police officer was NOT present in court.
      The judge played you for a SUCKER. Say, I just want to
      determine truth! I call the officer for questioning. Judge, then
      says, officer NOT present. Motion to dismiss. DISMISSED!

      7.)Best way to save gasoline, reduce the TRADE DEFICIT
      is to lower the speed limit. Other highways should be like
      the GERMAN AUTOBAHN – unlimited speed. This is MUCH
      SAFER, although U.S. of Americans do not believe this as this
      is counter-intuitive.

      8.)Like the A.S.C.E. American Society of Civil Engineers infrastructure report on roads – grade of D minus. Shame!
      The report card on the deaths and carnage gives a grade of
      D minus for the AMERICAN DRIVER.

      case study: Florida, the multi-car pileup in the fog/smog on
      Highway I-4. East-West – Tampa to Orlando Disneyworld.
      Too many TAILGATERS traveling a above SPEED LIMIT,
      NOT looking ahead.
      When I drive on the major highway EAST WEST, how do I know
      there is FOG? When I can’t see the tail-lights or even the
      ‘normal flow of traffic’ on the opposite side – headlights!!!!
      FOR FIVE MINUTES – why haven’t there been any cars
      coming towards me with HEADLIGHTS ON? – Hey, something is
      strange, let me slow down and let the FIVE TRACTOR TRAILERS in a convoy (illegal) go ahead. If I head a big boom
      or crash (with my window down) then I know there is a CATASTROPHE, right?

      the final reports from newspapers and Florida State Police, etc
      1.)drivers were charged with going too fast, but JUDGE dismissed everything.
      2.)state police supposedly monitor smog/fog/wildfire conditions,
      but NO CHARGES or even NAMES are mentioned.
      3.)newspapers – who knows? who cares?
      4.)NASA publishes a report on ‘adverse weather conditions’ but
      eventually this will be buried or just VANISH.
      5.)lawyers and even the POLITICAL Leaders keep saying
      ACT OF GOD – as if blaming GOD.
      6.)multiple car pileups continue to skyrocket throughout AMERICA.

      Why am I often one of the FIVE PERCENT SLOW DRIVERS on
      the road?
      Once in a while I tap my brake lights, I signal for turns and even
      slow down to let GARBAGE TRUCKS pass.

      Former volunteer with VOLUNTEER AMBULANCE CORP.
      Yes, I know PHYSICS (I did NOT get a grade of D, like many other high school dropouts). Kinetic energy increase as the
      SQUARE of the velocity. You may survive (in a wheelchair for
      the rest of your life) at speed of 50 mph or 55. But, few survive
      65,75, 85 mph or head on collisions.

      Why are GARBAGE TRUCKS dangerous? Because of the
      center of gravity. The load of garbage or dump truck filled with
      sand has a BAD WICKED chance of flipping or overturning.
      Same with those long schoolbusses or long extended ‘church


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