The Trouble With Speed Limits

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Currently,
I work away from home at a small company with large aspirations
for the future as their R&D Chemist.  What I do is
not germane to the discussion but my situation is.  My home
is approximately 270 miles from where I work and I commute home
on the weekends to spend roughly 48 hours with my wife and little
girl.  In the past 18 months I’ve become quite familiar with
Florida’s Turnpike and an 80 mile stretch of I-75, as I make this
pilgrimage to my life two to three times every month. 

The wear and
tear is significant but, in many ways, so worth it when I make it
home Friday evening to see Capt. Charity Vain and The Woogie (my
nickname for my lil’un) smiling and pointing as I drive up to the
homestead in Outer Luongolia. 

It’s funny,
I used to hate long-distance driving a lot more than I do now. 
But the anticipation of being reunited with those that mean the
most to me makes the three- to four-hour trip home so worth it. 
The trip back is harder, but, thanks to the invention of the cell
phone (and my not living in an advanced civilization like New York),
it tends to go by reasonably quickly.  It’s time that can be
spent catching up with friends or hashing out ideas with my partner
Matt over at Sabre Rattling
My car is
reasonably new
, comfortable and a joy to drive at highway speeds
(and beyond).  The only thing it lacks is an auxiliary jack
for my MP3 player and a willingness to stay below 90 mph.

When I bought
the car I never thought I’d have to factor in the cost of speeding
tickets and the commensurately higher insurance premiums that go
with them. Maybe I should have negotiated a Traffic Violation Allowance
along with my salary.  It’s a good thing my wallet at the time
(or now, frankly) could not afford my desire for the turbo-charged
version of this car or the State of Florida and me would be in serious
negotiations as to the suitability of my presence on their roads,
which, finally, brings me to the point of this article.

The posted
speed limit on most Florida highways is 70 mph, while the de facto
limit is closer to 85 or, depending on the disposition of the FHP
officer working the area, 90 mph.  For those of you still living
in the dark ages, or New York, I’m sure you’re in a state of shock
at the idea of driving that fast.  But, remember, most, if
not all, of the state is flat and the roads so straight that it’s
really more like steering than driving. The only challenge comes
from having to deal with the other drivers on the road and their
desire to ignore the first rule of highway driving, namely slower
traffic should keep right. 

Floridians
are notorious for there inability to grasp such a simple concept. 
But, in my mind, this deterioration of good driving practices is
really the State’s fault.  You know, the people who we designated
to set the boundary conditions in the name of providing order. 
Think about this for a second.  The actual speeds people are
traveling are all in excess of the posted speed limit, and even
the slow-pokes are still within the legal "warning" zone
of 1–4 mph over the limit.  So, the net effect is
that even though there are people on the road who really want to
flaunt the law, they are consistently impeded by those who only
want to break the law somewhat and feel perfectly justified parking
their car in the left lane at speeds which are still unacceptable
to the others on the road.  You can almost feel the tension
mount as the cars jockey for position to try and get around this
guy who refuses to yield for a minute to let the faster traffic
pass.

Of course,
the net effect of this behavior is a less-predictable roadway as
the "go-really-fast" people will seek to break another
rule of the road, namely "don’t pass on the right," to
satisfy their desires and, by extension, increase the probability
of a serious accident.  Frustrated drivers are dangerous drivers. 
I know this, as I become one at lest once per trip home and it takes
a lot of work to remind myself of the prize at the end of the road
and to let the little things go.  I was reminded of this constantly
during the 4-hour Driver’s Improvement Class I took to avoid the
points for a speeding infraction going on my license.  Ahh,
sweet irony.

Why this is
the State’s fault is that they set a speed limit that is obviously
at odds with most of the driving population and which, in effect,
encourages erratic driving conditions.  The
speed limit is set by utilizing a number of considerations,

only a few of which take into consideration the actual behavior
of the people driving on the roads.  The 85th percentile rule,
which, in effect would set the speed limit at one standard deviation
above the mean speed traveled on the road, is usually invoked by
traffic engineers as the right limit, but, in many cases that data
is ignored for political reasons, be it resistance to raising the
speed limit, existing statutory limits or, as I suspect, the desire
by law enforcement agencies to provide increased revenue for themselves
directly or indirectly.

In fact, the
speed limits are invariably set at between 8 and 12 mph lower than
the 85th percentile, according to a 2003 report of the Transportation
Research Board of National Academics.

All I have
to say to that is, “Cui Bono?”

We all know
the answer to that question, of course.  It is precisely those
who enforce that arbitrary limit who benefit from it.  Up until
recently, Highway(men) Police in Florida benefitted directly, getting
a portion of the ticket revenue as bonus money; now the revenue
just goes to the county in which the ticket was issued.  If
you don’t think speeding tickets are big business then you
haven’t been paying attention
.  I knew the situation was
bad, but I had no idea that cops were now dressing themselves up
as hobos to hide their radar guns, setting up "speeding stings"
and the like in residential zones.  Yet another reason not
to live in a burbclave.

From personal experience I ran into the worst possible scenario,
one that literally had me shaking from fright, anger, frustration
and everything in between for about a week. On February 11th of
this year, I got pulled over along with another guy (at the same
time, mind you… how the cop clocked both of us I don’t know) for
doing 91 in a 70 just north of Ft. Pierce.  Fine, great, whatever,
I thought as I waited for the cop (who barely even looked at me)
to hand me my ticket so I can get on with my life, pay the thing
and be done with it.  I think I was actually reaching for my
checkbook and stamps when he returned to my car.

When he returned he asked for my keys.  You see it’s a full-fledged
crime against the state to drive on an expired license in Florida
now.  My birthday passed that week and I hadn’t re-upped my
$15 privilege to use the roads that I paid for in the first place.
I had to plead with them not to impound my car. 

For being 3 days late with a $15 dollar payment (which I never received
a bill for) their response was to take my $20,000 automobile away
from me.  Somehow the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. 
The best part was their (a 2nd one showed up to do berate me, I
guess) insistence that all of this was my fault, a classic example
of the State blaming the customer for using the services that they
provide.  Moreover, Florida’s Turnpike is a pay-per-use road,
on top of the taxes that I pay in the first place.

So, someone please explain to me why is it that a late payment for
a fee should result in my property being taken from me until such
time as I present to them proof that I paid them?    Never
once was there the option presented to me to pay the debt immediately,
on the spot.  Why not?  Why is it that these "cops,"
who are mostly just interested in the revenue their inconsistent
and arbitrary enforcement of their own rules generates, not willing
to accept a guaranteed payment at the moment that such a deficit
is discovered?

If this renewal of my license was the equivalent of a membership
fee for road access, then why not consider the ticket for the violation
a payment for the late membership fee?   Why is it necessary
to give these people the power to potentially impound my vehicle,
in essence stealing it, when the problem is one I’m willing to rectify
at that time, including a late penalty?  What’s the purpose
of such a law?  Why does it have to be enforced this way? 
Can’t they just take Visa? 

They know that there are no reasons why my renewal would be turned
down. They can look that information up, so there’s no reason not
to solve the problem without further damage to my wallet, less wasting
of my time and less paperwork for them.  They have an internet
connection in their car and we have on-line renewal in this state. 
The solution seems axiomatic to me.

The reason it’s this way is control, of course.  You see, the
State doesn’t care about you.  The police officer that I argued
with told me that he wasn’t to blame, that he cannot knowingly let
me commit a crime by driving on an expired license and that if I
was mad then I should be mad at myself for putting myself in this
situation.  I could understand the first part of his argument
and, in a sense was sympathetic.  But, considering that the
speed limit law that I violated which uncovered this clerical error
is an arbitrary one and was actively being violated by every person
driving by witnessing our conversation, this line of reasoning seemed
dubious to me, to say the least.  Why am I to be singled out
when everyone else is just as guilty?  According to the tow
truck driver (and recipient of even more state-created welfare),
I was lucky because if the Lieutenant was on duty he would have,
“taken my butt to jail.”

To be fair to the situation I experienced, the issue is not the
speed at which I was going or the decision by the cop to pull me
over for that behavior.  The issue is the law itself which
sets a limit that does not and, by definition, cannot take stock
of the situation as it existed on the road at that time.  Traffic
was flowing smoothly, the weather was clear and there was no need
for us to do anything other than sit in the left lane and drive. 
Couple that with the fiduciary incentive of both the FHP officer
and the county government to maximize the revenue based on the selective
enforcement of that law and we have a situation that balloons to
a point where I could have spent the night on a bench in the Port
St. Lucie rest area while waiting for my wife to drive down from
High Springs to take me to my apartment, or in jail.

All for being 3 days late with a payment and going 5 miles per hour
faster than the people in the right lane. 

You know, if I’m late with a payment to Cingular, they call me and
ask for payment before shutting off my phone, 4 or 5 times. 
They know that if they treat an arbitrary payment due date so rigidly
that I’ll tell them to go shove their service into a smelly bodily
opening and switch to one of their competitors.  While the
State just collects more and more money to use to buy more cops
and more cars, planes, helicopters and Santa Suits to fleece people
for the non-crime of using their automobile in a way that displeases
them that day.

The issue of driver’s licensure is one that was enacted originally
to help create an account of those who do horrible things while
at the wheel of their automobiles.  Regardless of whether this
was a good implementation for that desired service, it is important
to understand its roots.  The system has morphed from one designed
to facilitate the investigation of crimes committed while driving,
like running people over or running into other cars, to one which
conflates the enforcement of rules put in place to prevent these
things from happening (regardless of their real effects) with them
actually happening.  If I have to hear the phrase, “Cops write
tickets to save lives,” one more time I’m going to puke on my keyboard.

My real issue with all of this is that highway patrolmen should
be spending their time actually looking for those that do real harm
and helping emergency service people when an accident occurs; protecting
and serving those that pay for that service.  They should not
be out there randomly stopping people for violations of rules that
in the end clog up the roads, and create erratic behavior and possibly
accidents just by their mere presence. 

On my last trip home this past weekend I saw a Dodge Neon with Osceola
County plates, fully-tinted windows and flashing blue and red lights
pulling over a minivan for doing around 82 just south of I-4 in
Orlando.  Not two minutes later a Ford Explorer (also with
Osceola County Plates) turned its lights on to slow down and
enter the cut-out between the north and southbound lanes. 

We have Secret Police in Florida now.  Just think, the person
driving next to you in the future, you know the one who decides
to pull up next to you on an empty 2-lane road and stay there in
the most dangerous place he could possibly be, might just be trying
to goad you into speeding up to pull you over.

Ta,

May
31, 2007

Thomas
Luongo [send him email]
is a professional chemist, amateur economist and obstreperous Southerner-in-Training.
In addition to publishing his personal blog, he currently contributes
to AOL’s NHL Fan
House
as well as covers the Buffalo Sabres at Sabre
Rattling
.

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