Speed limits are about to become limitless – as in, whatever those who set them say they are.
This has always been true, to an extent – in that all speed limits are, to a degree, arbitrary. People are subject to a ticket – i.e., to being extorted by armed government workers, acting on behalf of the government – simply for driving faster than a number posted (by the government) on a sign.
There is an asserted correlation between driving faster than whatever the number on the sign happens to be and the odds of an accident occurring. But this is the motor vehicle code equivalent of “asymptomatic spread.”
The assertion is not the fact.
But to date, there has been a mitigating degree of objectivity. It is called the 85th percentile speed. It refers to the number you get when you watch and record the flow of traffic on a given stretch of road – and it means the speed that almost all the cars do not drive much faster than, irrespective of whatever the number on the sign happens to be.
This speed is taken to be a more-or-less reasonable – a safe – speed for the road on that basis, since it is assumed that most people haven’t got a death wish and will naturally operate at speeds that are reasonable for the road and for conditions as well as their own skills and the capabilities of their vehicle.
There is a federal regulatory publication styled the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) published by the Federal Highway Administration, which specifically advises use of the 85th percentile rule to set formal speed limits – usually within 5 MPH of the observed 85th percentile speed.
The idea being to set the limit such that most drivers aren’t “guilty” of “speeding” . . . for driving at reasonable, safe speeds. And subject to trumped-up tickets on that basis.
Also, to encourage mostly uniform speed – which is itself a traffic safety consideration. The phenomenon of speed variance – some cars moving much faster (or much more slowly) than other cars – creates less predictable conditions and that can be a problem, too. At least, when other drivers aren’t regularly scanning mirrors and keeping track of their vehicle’s position relative to other traffic.
That problem, of course, could be greatly diminished by improving the general cut of the average driver’s jib – as by expecting more of drivers, as in Germany.
Speed variance on the Autobahn can be in excess of 100 MPH – a Porsche running 180 and a Ford Focus doing 80. The driver of the Ford keeps out of the left lane – unless he’s passing someone doing 60 – and he is expected to be always looking for the Porsche, so as to not be in its way. If he sees flashing headlights coming up in his rearview, he moves right – immediately. The Porsche expects this courtesy and so doesn’t have to worry about slamming on his brakes to avoid a discourteous – a dangerously oblivious – driver.
The Autobahn was able to have no speed limits at all – and a lower incidence of accidents than the U.S. Interstate Highway system – because more was expected of German than American drivers.
We have the 85th percentile speed.
Which has at least served to delegitimize speed limits set well below it – which made it harder to legitimize the kinds of egregious speed limit enforcement made infamous by small towns that derived much of their “revenue” via them.
There was also the absurd 55 MPH National Maximum Speed Limit (NMSL) which lowered 85th percentile highway speed limits from 70-75 MPH to 55 – for almost 20 years, from the mid-1970s through the mid-1990s. Millions of Americans were “pulled over” and essentially robbed at gunpoint – both by the man with the gun and then by the insurance man – for driving at speeds that had been legal and were within the 85th percentile prior to the arbitrary reduction of those PSLs – posted speed limits – by 15-20 MPH.
The Federal Highway Administration is apparently about to toss the requirement in the MUTCD that posted speed limits conform with and are based upon the 85th percentile speed.
What this means, in everyday terms, is that states and counties and cities would be unbound from any obligation to limit how low they decree speed limits to be, according to any objective standard. (You can review the full text of the proposed changes here.)
Instead, local/state bureaucrats would be free to post limits in accord with whatever they say – whatever they assert – to be “safe” speeds. It would be the return of Drive 55 – with a vengeance.
Because it is not 1974 and the technological means for mass enforcement exists, as for example by photo radar for one and – more ominously – the in-car capability most new cars have to monitor, record and transmit how fast the car is traveling in real time, all the time. Every “violation” of arbitrary speed limits could be taken note of as it occurs – and the driver automatically dunned, as by an instant “adjustment” of his insurance premium or even perhaps by an automatic deduction of the automated fine from his bank account.
Such things are already practiced (like Sickness Kabuki) in European countries. They could just as easily be practiced here. They already are, to some degree, if you drive commercially. These vehicles are often equipped with such technology, which is why one often sees these vehicles operating within the letter of whatever the law happens to be, no matter how unsafe that might be. As, for example, by slowly pulling out in front of fast-moving traffic . . . in order to avoid the in-car computer taking note of (and reporting) “aggressive” acceleration.
Driving is under systematic attack in this country, in order to achieve the goal of less driving – something that is openly espoused by “new urbanist” advocates of such things as Vision Zero.
A very effective way to attack driving is to make it both miserable and expensive – which would be achieved by getting rid of the MUTCD’s 85th percentile standard, which amount to a kind of Second Amendment for driving rights.
The National Motorists Association – which was largely responsible for getting the 55 MPH National Maximum Speed Limit repealed back in the mid-1990s, after almost 20 years of serial abuse of American motorists – is leading the fight to keep the 85th percentile rule on the MUTCD “books.” So as to maintain at least some objective pressure to set speed limits that correlate somewhat with reasonable speeds.
NMA is a great resource – and an ally of drivers. Here’s a link to some of their material on the subject. And here’s a link to the Federal Highway Administration’s public comment area, which closes May 14th.
If this isn’t stopped, we’re all likely to be stopped. And mulcted. Over and over and over, again. Perhaps to the point that we’ll give up on driving altogether.
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