“License and registration, please.”

The truth behind speed limits

Isabella Setudeh-Nejad/Talon

Just a few short months ago, I straddled into my Fiat 500e for the first time alone. It was truly a life-changing experience; it instilled in me a great sense of freedom, responsibility and independence — quite the American set of values might I add.

But I would soon come to learn the harsh reality of the road: speed limits. I found that under many circumstances they were simply a nuisance, and it was clear to me that certain reforms to traffic laws would not only make our roads more efficient but in many cases safer.

All in all, what kills is not speed, it is speed differential. If a driver is going significantly slower than the flow of traffic that can be just as dangerous as a driver going significantly faster. This is why it is important to be aware of the flow of traffic in order to safely follow it.

This principle was proven in Germany. Germany is home to the Autobahn, a highway system that, in many areas, has no general speed limit. Instead, drivers strictly follow lane-based speeds and are more aware of the flow of traffic. This system has proved to be successful not just for efficiency, but also for safety. According to the World Health Organization, Germany has a death rate of 6.4 per 100,000 vehicles, while America has a death rate of more than double that at 14.2 per 100,000 vehicles.

Picture this: it is 11:30 p.m. on a Wednesday night. You are cruising along a highway where you are able to see at least a mile ahead of you. There are very few, if any, cars in sight and this highway is in an agricultural area with almost no homes nearby. Let’s assume the speed limit is 65 mph. In this situation, you doubtfully would not be putting any lives in danger by going 75 mph instead. Yet, in California, you could potentially be charged upwards of $300 for this ‘violation.’ 

But speed limits are not all bad. It is estimated that speeding tickets generate 3.75 billion to 5.4billion dollars of revenue for the government annually, this is money helps to make sure law enforcement receives sufficient funding and is able to keep Americans safe. However, with traffic citations being such a large economic stimulant for the government, this is all the more reason for legislation that lowers the speed limit arbitrarily. 

Not only are speed limits often arbitrarily low, but they are also extremely ineffective. A study from the University of Maryland found that people who received a speeding citation were twice as likely to receive a subsequent citation when compared to non-offenders. This shows that speed limits are an awfully ineffective deterrence method for those who feel comfortable driving at a speed that exceeds the limit.

This comfortability is the most important factor when a driver decides how fast they should travel. No matter what the speed limit is, drivers will drive at the speed they feel comfortable driving at. This is because every road has a natural speed. We are able to recognize cues that signal to our brains to slow down or speed up. A curve in the road? Slow down. Lots of pedestrians? Slow down. No other cars around? Speed up. 

This was proven in a study of the New York Thruway. The speed limit was raised on this motorway from 55 to 65. But during the 18-month period in which the average speed of the road was monitored, it was concluded that the average speed was the same before and after the change at 68. This proves that the average speed of a road is largely independent from the posted speed limit. 

What determines the safety of a road is not solely the speed at which cars are going, much of it has to do with the safety of the driver. While there are plenty of safe German drivers who are comfortable with going 100 mph, there are also plenty of drivers who are unsafe while driving at or below the speed limit. 

The most important task on the road is to drive safe and always be aware of your surroundings.