Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Free Pass, my... eye

In USA Today yesterday, there was a front page article headlined "Speeders' 5-10 mph 'free pass' costs lives, report says".
The article went on to quote some advocacy group as saying that the cushion cops typically allow drivers contributes to "carnage" on the nation's roadways, blah blah blah. What stupidity. I *know* they have to sell papers, but this is absurd. Happily for you, however, I'm here to give you the straight scoop...

First of all, this *IS* true: Speed affects the frequency and severity of accidents; if cops enforced the law more strictly, everyone would be forced to drive more slowly, and there would be fewer fatalities.

But here's the deal: The average posted speed on interstates is (let's say) 60mph, and the average actual driving speed is 68mph. Yes, we COULD make people drive closer to 60mph if we wanted to. But there is nothing magic about the number 60. It is safer than 70 and more dangerous than 50. EVERY mile per hour of speed can be said to cost a certain number of lives. That applies to the miles between 30-35mph, between 60-68mph, and between 110-125mph. Why not make the speed limit 40, and enforce that? If we were used to driving 40 everywhere, and someone proposed driving 60, people would freak out about the "carnage" that would result.

Whatever speed we want people to drive at, we have to make the limit a little lower, and then enforce it in a way that's efficient and effective -- that's why cops do it the way they do -- the policy didn't develop by accident, or through sloth or stupidity. If cops ticketed for 2mph over the limit, then
a) people would be fighting their tickets all the time,
b) it would make us annoyed, and
c) it wouldn't allow for the realities of life, which is that sometimes it's reasonable, safe, and necessary to drive slightly slower or (gasp) faster than the posted limit (IOW, there is no limit which is exactly the right maximum speed for a particular road 100% of the time).

We just like the idea of making people drive the posted limit because we love Rules. Rules give us a sense of security in the face of the injustice, difficulty, and disorder we encounter in the great swirling chaos of life. 60MPH carries a sense of Officialness and Rightness because, hey, look at all the signs that we've posted saying it's a good maximum speed. What I call The Power of What IS is significant -- what we're used to seeing carries far more weight with us than it would command on its merits alone.

But there's no such thing as a speed limit that will keep us all safe. There was no Golden Age. There is no economic system, social convention, foreign policy, consumer protection law, enviro-friendly approach, or method of holding a pocket knife that will ensure our health, prevent accidents, defeat hunger, and make everyone live happily ever after. Everything is a trade-off, nothing is free, and life is unfair, disorganized, and often tragic.

If we were really serious about addressing the "carnage", we'd have a national 20mph speed limit; helmets, 5-point restraint systems, 360-degree airbags would be mandatory. Motorcycles would be illegal, as well as Cooper Minis. That would put a dent in the Slaughter On Our Highways, or whatever you want to call it when Newton's First Law gets applied to us even though we're good people who like ourselves and didn't want to die yet.

And there are enough people who can be swayed by articles like the one in USA today, that as a nation we might even vote for something stupid like a 20mph speed limit. Until we realized it would take forever to ship anything. When pop tarts suddenly cost six bucks apiece, we'd *run* to the polling place to vote for higher speed limits and to heck with the carnage. Which is as it should be.

12 Comments:

At Wed Jun 15, 11:36:00 PM PDT, Blogger Erik said...

this is a great post, and you deserve recognition for that. it's not that other things you do aren't worthwhile, but i don't always let you know about every single thing you do right. so just be happy i mentioned something about it this time, and let that be that.

 
At Thu Jun 16, 08:34:00 AM PDT, Blogger unca said...

I agree that it makes no sense to fuss about a "buffer zone" for issuing speeding citations for all of the reasons you've given. I also think most people would agree with you that there is no fatality- free speed limit and that we weigh convenience against some "carnage" at any speed. I do believe, however, that highway fatalities and highway injuries are not being given enough attention as public health issues in proportion to the enormity of the problem. We seemed to have accepted the fact that we're going to suffer around 43,000 fatalities a year (and many-fold more severe and debilitating injuries) in return for the convenience of being able to drive really fast. The issue is not whether to drop the speed limit to 20 mph but rather determining how to balance speed and convenience optimally. We can all disagree on what this limit might be but we should all agree that some restriction is necessary and appropriate. I argue that if 10,000 lives can be saved a year by mandating an upper speed limit of 55 mph, it should be done. 43,000 deaths a year is a huge number--higher than the number of deaths due to breast cancer--twice the number of deaths due to lymphoma. Moreover, when measured in the number of years of life lost, highway deaths represent a greater problem than does smoking (which has somehow taken on the character of the greatest evil of our time.) Would a 55 mph speed limit adversely impact the economy to the extent that we’re willing to accept an additional 10,000 deaths a year? I doubt it.

 
At Thu Jun 16, 11:24:00 AM PDT, Blogger bryan torre said...

well, fine. be right, see if i care.

 
At Thu Jun 16, 03:07:00 PM PDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unca, You are right IF a 55 mph speed limit WILL save 10,000 peoples lives than we should do it.

Because the force of an accident is equal to the mass of the vehicle times the square of the speed (f=mv^2) it would seem to reason that every mile per hour decrease should result in a an exponential decrease in fatalities.

So, I argue that a 45 mph speed limit might save your 10,000 + another 15,000 = 25,000 saved souls. And after all, isn't that what our rules are supposed to do? Save us from ourselves and all the other nasty things that lurk in the darkness?

Or perhaps you missed the point of the article. The advocacy group maintained that because we have introduced all these new safety measures the fatality rate should have dropped. But it did not; therefore the problem could not possibly be the fact that the projections were wrong, no it must be the fact that something else was at work

Or could it be that the current fatality rate (which is at a historic low) could simply be “the fatality rate”, and no reasonable adjustments to the speed limit will impact this rate. The article does not mention what % of fatalities occurred at certain speeds. Perhaps 50% of the fatalities are occurring in “rush hour” traffic that is well below the posted speed limit. We don’t know this because the article fails to mention any pertinent information that we could use to form our own conclusion. Therefore we must simply take the “experts” point of view without any skepticism, and blame the “carnage” on those evil speeders.

 
At Thu Jun 16, 03:08:00 PM PDT, Anonymous Bill said...

Unca, You are right IF a 55 mph speed limit WILL save 10,000 peoples lives than we should do it.

Because the force of an accident is equal to the mass of the vehicle times the square of the speed (f=mv^2) it would seem to reason that every mile per hour decrease should result in a an exponential decrease in fatalities.

So, I argue that a 45 mph speed limit might save your 10,000 + another 15,000 = 25,000 saved souls. And after all, isn't that what our rules are supposed to do? Save us from ourselves and all the other nasty things that lurk in the darkness?

Or perhaps you missed the point of the article. The advocacy group maintained that because we have introduced all these new safety measures the fatality rate should have dropped. But it did not; therefore the problem could not possibly be the fact that the projections were wrong, no it must be the fact that something else was at work

Or could it be that the current fatality rate (which is at a historic low) could simply be “the fatality rate”, and no reasonable adjustments to the speed limit will impact this rate. The article does not mention what % of fatalities occurred at certain speeds. Perhaps 50% of the fatalities are occurring in “rush hour” traffic that is well below the posted speed limit. We don’t know this because the article fails to mention any pertinent information that we could use to form our own conclusion. Therefore we must simply take the “experts” point of view without any skepticism, and blame the “carnage” on those evil speeders.

 
At Thu Jun 16, 04:30:00 PM PDT, Blogger unca said...

Well, I was actually commenting on Bryan's original reaction to the USA piece which I didn't read. I'm a bit confused. First you state that the fatality rate didn't go down and then you state that it's at an all time low (which means that it HAS gone down?) -- this needs some clarification. Bryan is correct in his assessment of why we don't just start ticketing people who drive 66 mph. He's also right in that there will probably need to be a tradeoff between convenience (speed) and safety. You're right that we don't have the evidence at hand to make that assessment although I doubt that we've reached (as you suggest) the bottom speed for minimizing fatalities. In any case my main points were: 1) that the number of lives and years lost through highway accidents is still grossly unacceptable and 2) that IF we discover experimentally or empirically that we can, indeed, save 10,000 lives a year by lowering the speed limit to a reasonable 55 then we ought to do it even if it costs us some time. Just to put things into perspective, there are well over 10 times the number of lives lost every year on the highway than were lost on Sept. 11. But consider what inconveniences we’ve been willing to put up with since that date. In support of my first point consider that every year there are nearly as many people killed on the highway every year as were killed in the entire Viet Nam war. The answer may not be lowering the speed limit--it may be better lighting, safer cars, automatic collision warning systems, screening systems for intoxicated operators, alternate transportation systems, etc. but if the number of deaths are to be lowered, we need to recognize that it remains a horrendous national tragedy rather than a simple fact of life.

 
At Thu Jun 16, 07:18:00 PM PDT, Blogger No_Newz said...

I vote for speed! It helps with overpopulation. ;)
Stooopid newspaper!
Lois Lane

 
At Fri Jun 17, 01:15:00 PM PDT, Blogger blogball said...

Unca, this is a great point and something to think about:

“There are well over 10 times the number of lives lost every year on the highway than were lost on Sept. 11. But consider what inconveniences we’ve been willing to put up with since that date”

Lets say someone invented a new form of transportation that was revolutionary and would make things even faster and easier to get around than today and would make Pop Tarts even cheaper at the stores. All eyes would be on this new vehicle. Then when everything seemed to be going great there is a fatality. The death occurred because of the new design of the vehicle.

This one death would of course make big news. The family of the person who died would be on all the morning talk shows saying things like if my (son or daughter) would have been in a regular car (he or she) would be alive today. A lawsuit would follow etc. It is then proven that these new vehicles pose a bigger danger than a regular car. A few more deaths occur and the government outlaws the vehicle even though the few companies that were using these vehicles were able to make a difference in their bottom line. I don’t think there would be a big public out cry on this decision.

Why can’t we say to ourselves that every 5 mph that we lower the speed limit represents getting rid of that new vehicle that was described in the scenario above?
It’s always harder to take away something that a person is used to having than to outlaw something before we take it for granted. I think this is just human nature.

I believe this is why there is always a public outcry when some public saftey commission suggests lowering the speed limit. It’s like an infringement on our freedom. The government or whoever is taking away something we had already accepted was a risk to begin with.

Unca, maybe this is the reason we didn’t put up much of a fuss when all the inconvenient security measures were put into place after 9/11. That was the first time anything like that has ever happened to us. This was an unknown statistic and was not accepted as something we just have to live with.

So what is an excepted per-year death toll?
How do we balance convinces & profits with loss of life?
Is it that important to get our pizzas delivered in less than 30 minuets?
No one has the answers to any of the questions that would satisfy everybody.

I suspect that if you knew that you or one of your loved ones would be one of the several hundred lives that would be saved by lowering the speed limit 5 mph your answer might be a little different. (Just something to think about)
Drive careful everybody.

 
At Fri Jun 17, 01:53:00 PM PDT, Blogger Erik said...

this is getting too hard! everyone just drive around really fast like me and lois!

 
At Fri Jun 17, 09:54:00 PM PDT, Blogger Stephanie said...

Listen folks, this is all a moot point. At some time in the near future, we will no longer have any OIL. At which time, not only our highway system will come to a screaming halt, but our entire economy as well. So enjoy the speed while you can. Things will slow down SOON ENOUGH! Cheers! :-)

 
At Tue Jun 21, 06:10:00 AM PDT, Blogger unca said...

Blogball writes, "Lets say someone invented a new form of transportation that was revolutionary and would make things even faster and easier to get around than today and would make Pop Tarts even cheaper at the stores. All eyes would be on this new vehicle. Then when everything seemed to be going great there is a fatality. The death occurred because of the new design of the vehicle.

This one death would of course make big news."
Yes--that's exactly right. It's not the numbers it's the novelty of the thing that draws the attention. We see it all the time in just the way you've described. A new car design that causes one death would draw the ire of journalists all over the country. As it's been said, "One death is a tragedy; a thousand deaths is a statistic."

 
At Sun Jun 26, 12:28:00 PM PDT, Blogger JB said...

But there's no such thing as a speed limit that will keep us all safe. There was no Golden Age. You said: "There is no economic system, social convention, foreign policy, consumer protection law, enviro-friendly approach, or method of holding a pocket knife that will ensure our health, prevent accidents, defeat hunger, and make everyone live happily ever after. Everything is a trade-off, nothing is free, and life is unfair, disorganized, and often tragic."

This is assertion is not only well-put, but, I think, the main point of your post. We desperately want to believe that our intelligence gives us complete power over our environment, that we can order and control our world. Speed limits are a way of saying, “You are safe if you stay within the limit,” but really, we’re never safe, and our chances of getting plowed while commuting to work are high no matter if we’re going 60 or 75.

I think that the poignant part of your post comes from this idea: We are very fragile creatures and our most common mode of transportation is highly dangerous.

 

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