Don’t you ever just wish that speed limits were gone and you could drive as fast as you wanted? I often do. Think about how fast I would be able to get to my favorite cafe in the R8 if it weren’t for those pesky speed laws. But that’s super dangerous, right? After all, speed kills. And, in addition to being the best instructional guitar video ever made, is the go-to response whenever someone mentions raising the speed limits.
And it sounds correct. You go faster, which means more energy, and more danger. Well, I know a thing or two about danger, and I can tell you that faster speed limits might actually be safer. That’s what we’ll do today; we’ll look at how speed limits are set, what causes the most accidents, whether or not we need traffic laws at all, and we’ll cap it all off with what I think is the best solution to the problems caused by speed limits. To start, though, who’s in charge of speed limits anyway?
Who Sets the Speed? – And Do They Have the Need?
If you do any research into speed limits, you’ll stumble across the whole 55-miles-per-hour thing in the ’70s that was supposed to make cars more efficient. The thing is, though, that states can actually set their own speed limits. So, to get the states to set their speed limits to 55, the government refused to give funding to states that had higher speed limits, just like how your mom wouldn’t give you your allowance unless you fed the dog.
Well, that’s ancient history. Nowadays, local governments are largely in control of traffic rules and they use engineers, computers, and politics to decide how fast you get to drive. The engineers and computers actually do a pretty darn good job too.
How Are Speeds Determined? – Get Your Abacus Out
This surprised me too while I researching it because I kind of just assumed speed limits were arbitrary and meant to make sure cops had something to do, but there’s actually a lot of thought and science behind it.
See, they use three main parameters to determine the speed limit on a certain road. Number one is the environment. If it’s a place that regularly gets a lot of rain and the road gets covered in mud, well, you can’t have some super fast speed limit. Conversely, you don’t want to go super fast through the middle of a forest because trees won’t get out of your way.
The second parameter is the engineering, specifically, what the road is meant to handle. A big six-lane super-highway is perfect for going super fast, and so the speed limit is higher. On a little country road through the suburb, though, you’ll definitely want to slow down.
Finally, there’s the whole behavior thing. We’ll get into this more later when we talk about the Solomon curve. But TLDR, it’s called the 85% rule and, basically, it means that most people will actually drive at a safe speed if they aren’t told any differently. There are major issues with using these metrics, namely, conditions can change. For instance, if it’s raining Tuesday, that doesn’t mean the road is always slippery. But, I know a good solution for that, which we’ll get to.
Before we get to that, though, I mentioned politics before. And it’s unfortunate, but it is something we have to deal with.
Sin Tax – Screw You for Having Fun
See, there’s this set of laws called “sin laws,” which are basically like: you do something that’s kind of bad, then you get punished super hard. And not in a fun way, in the way that you hand over all your money to the Feds. It’s an easy way for small towns to make some extra cash. They set the speed limit slower than what the scientists calculated using conditions, engineering, and humans. And then you come along going what you assume is the nice, safe speed limit, when suddenly the blue-and-reds come on behind you.
You pay your ticket, some politician smiles, and we write an article asking questions like: are these stupid speed limits actually making us safe?
Are Speed Limits Safer? – No
No, they’re not. Well, that was easy. See you next time, folks. Alright, let’s look at the facts. In the 1900s, there were no speed laws, but that’s a silly argument because cars were super slow. Instead, let’s look at a country with less than half the number of fatal accidents than the USA per capita. The land of beer, pretzels, and the M3: Germany. See, Germany has something called the Autobahn that does not have speed limits. And it’s super safe.
But, Germans are just like that. They train hard, play hard, and follow the other rules, unlike us Americans, right? Well, remember how I said the laws changed in the ’90s and the 55-mile-per-hour speed limits were phased out in favor of, like, 70-, 75-, and even 80-mile-per-hour highways? So, if Americans can’t handle speed, then accident rates would have skyrocketed in the ’90s. But that didn’t happen.
We can’t say that speed is actually safer, although, that is what the graphs might imply. Car technology and safety have come a long way, but the simple fact is that there was not a significant spike in fatal accidents when speed limits were raised. Does that mean higher speeds aren’t more dangerous? Also no.
Higher speeds are more dangerous. Do an experiment. Or, don’t do this, but imagine doing it. Walk into your wall, then run into it. Which would hurt more? Speed multiplies force exponentially, and more force equals more deadly. So, why don’t higher speed limits correlate with more accidents? Surprisingly, it’s because people are smarter than you think.
People Don’t Suck? – How Fast Do You Drive?
I mentioned the Solomon curve before. It’s a really cool thing. It was from this awesome study that showed that the biggest, most important thing to stay safe on the road is to keep up with the speed of traffic. Check out the graph. People going faster than traffic get in more accidents. But, also, and more importantly, people going slower than traffic also get into a lot of accidents.
In short, even if people are flying down the road, speeding, and causing havoc, as long as everyone is speeding, it’s pretty safe. People can handle it. That’s because there’s a ton of danger both ways. Let’s say the speed limit is 70 miles per hour. If someone is speeding, like going 80, and rear ends someone doing the speed limit, that’s like running into a wall at 10 miles per hour. However, if someone is putting along at 45 miles per hour, being all slow and unpredictable, and someone who is going the speed limit runs into them, that’s like hitting the wall doing 25, which is a lot worse.
So, the safest thing is for everyone to be traveling at the same speed. When people go faster than the speed of traffic, we call that “driving too fast for the conditions” and it’s often what causes accidents. Those people that drive like that, though, don’t give a damn about the speed of traffic or the speed limits, so it’s kind of hard to talk about them in this context.
As for people who are sane, how is the speed of traffic determined if it’s not about the government speed limit? Well, as I said and still continue to only sort of believe, people are actually pretty smart. And studies have shown that people will self-regulate. They’ll slow down when the weather gets bad and, as long as there are visual references like trees so that they can measure their relative speed, people will tend to drive at a comfortable speed for the road they’re on. In fact, we might not even need signs telling us what to do at all.
Do We Need Signs at All? – Is Chaos the Safer Alternative?
All around the world, there are cities experimenting with shared spaces. That means cars, trollies, pedestrians, that one weird dude that never stops riding a one-wheel, they all use the same intersection. And there are no markings on the road, no signs, and no speed limits. People just drive or walk or ride in, pick a path, and do what’s safe. You’d think that would lead to absolute carnage, but it’s proving to be safer and faster.
People can utilize the side of the road to get around busses and pedestrians can walk in straight lines to where they are going. And, without road signs, people are paying way more attention and using common sense. In Poynton, England, the whole town saw a drop in commute times when they switched to this model, and some places in London actually got safer when the street signs were removed.
I know it’s really not realistic to just remove all street signs and, honestly, I know the data says it might be better, but I don’t trust other people on the road. I do think there is a good solution, though.
The Best Solution – Change We Can Believe In
Imagine this: the rules of the road are flexible. Speed limit signs are LED panels that can change when road conditions change. For instance, if it rains, the speed limit gets lower. But, traffic is really moving, the speed limit gets higher and there are really strictly enforced speed minimums in addition to speed limits. That sounds like some kind of motoring fairy tale to those of us in the States.
Those of you in Europe have just been nodding along because that’s already how it’s done over there, right? So, that’s my proposal. We adopt flexible, changing speed limits that can accommodate not just the engineering, but road conditions and the flow of traffic at any time. Oh, and make sure you don’t vote for the yahoos that want to lower speed limits, just so they can have a new Rolex.