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School Zone Speed Limits and Other Delusions

First of all, let me state unequivocally that I’m not some ogre who hates kids. So, if any parents who read this want to send me hate mail, kindly think twice.

In Pennsylvania, the school zone speed limit is 15 mph. It applies “during the normal hours students are going to or leaving school,” according to Pennsylvania Code 201.32(b), although in my neighborhood a high school has posted hours which include the period 4:45 PM to 5:15 PM. Not only is the 15 mph limit absurdly low, but, as I will attempt to show, this and other aspects of the law foster a mind-set which tends to shift responsibility for one’s own actions onto others, which leads to the acceptance of what has been insightfully denoted “nanny statism,” and ultimately results in the erosion of our civil liberties.

(A review of this very short code section is illustrative of government bureaucracy, as it requires interpretation and lays groundwork for micro-management and waste. It sets forth the following without specifics: “geometric review,” “local authorities,” “traffic studies,” “the Department,” “State-designated highways,” and “first class and second class cities.” Why is all this fuss necessary? Couldn’t a school’s principal just put up a sign saying “Slow Down – Kids Here,” instead of wasting incalculable time and money conducting studies and having multiple agencies playing ping-pong with each other?)

Driving at the15 mph speed limit isn’t much faster than riding a skateboard, and since drivers find this tortoise-like pace unbearable, it is usually ignored. Aside from promoting disrespect for the law among drivers and watchful students alike, this creates a false sense of security, since unobservant kids are not really safer if they believe cars are trudging along at 15 mph when they’re really going 35 mph. Worse, and this is the major problem, the youngsters are subtly being taught that the responsibility for their safety rests not upon their own shoulders, but on those of others; they come to believe they don’t have to be so careful, because the state has told other people to look out for them.

This is an extremely bad idea, and a far cry from my own elementary school days, when we were continuously brainwashed with songs admonishing us to “look both ways” before crossing a street. It’s almost as if the little kids are now singing something like:

I don’t have to bother looking Whenever I cross the street; The government will protect me From drivers who might crush my feet

Kids should be taught that they must be very careful when crossing streets, that they are no match for a 2000 lb. vehicle, that they should only cross at corners, when it’s safe to do so, etc. Instead, they’re infantilized inside the cocoon of a 15 mph speed limit, so they can be free to relax and goof off, and not pay attention to what they’re doing. If this isn’t a case of sending the wrong message, I don’t know what is, and the mind-set of “others will watch out for me, and take care of me” starts to coalesce into a merry little childhood tune.

Now for the driver’s side of the coin. I’ve driven through countless school zones over my 40-year driving career, and I can state without hesitation that there have been children present a meager 5% of the time or less. So, I and every other driver must theoretically submit to the absurd 15 mph limit, even though 95% of the time there are not even any kids around! You’ll recall that I’ve stated that most drivers routinely ignore the limit, but this is at their own peril. Current penalties in Pennsylvania include a $35 or heftier fine (plus heavy costs) and 3 points (6 earn you a written exam, a second 6 earn you a hearing and possible suspension). A hysterical legislative push in 2004 for more severe penalties apparently was not passed.

If you think this 15 mph speed limit, which is taken for granted as sensible, is a great idea, then consider this: in California, the speed limit in school zones is 25 mph – when children are present. This makes eminently more sense than Pennsylvania’s law. It is a more reasonable speed, and only applies if there are kids around. No kids, no problem! So all those times when there’s nary a kid in sight, drivers can happily go along their way, without being slowed down to a snail-like pace, without having to resent the stupidity of it all, without wondering if they’re doing 16 mph and risking a fine and points.

So how did Pennsylvania settle on a 15 mph limit? That I do not know, although I suspect it was the invention of some pandering politician in search of unanimous approval. What I do know is that the limit is absurdly low, that it costs taxpayer dollars to pay for the 15 mph street signs, many with flashing lights that keep flashing on days when schools are closed, plus more money for all the surveys and reports and “ping-ponging” mentioned above. It also creates “nanny state” children and makes lawbreakers out of most drivers.

Later, when the kids grow up, they will, in some states at least, evolve into pedestrians who walk out into the street without looking, headphones strapped to their ears, blasting insipid music into their skulls – and the law will force vehicles to stop dead in their tracks. The first few weeks I encountered this in Los Angeles in the 1970’s, it was so preposterous that it never occurred to me that such stupidity could actually be legislated. At unregulated intersections, people (often elderly) would just stroll up to the corner and walk into the street without breaking stride. I had to smash my brake pedal dozens of times, and, of course, shout obscenities at the imbeciles. Later, natives explained that this was the law – pedestrians were allowed to promenade into the street at will, and drivers had to stop. The childhood “others will watch out for me, and take care of me” tune had become a delusional mantra.

You may argue that all of this is a minor inconvenience, compared to keeping our kids (and other pedestrians) safe. Believe me, I’m all for keeping kids safe, but this type of thinking, that “it’s only a minor inconvenience compared to the benefit,” will eventually lead to the loss of our civil liberties. Just a week or so ago, a federal judge in New York ruled that random searches of subway passengers was acceptable, that it is just a minimal invasion of privacy, that the benefits outweigh the inconvenience. See, for example, this article in Jurist. Apparently the government’s thinking goes thusly: the Constitution is full of minor inconveniences, but we can just ignore them, one by one, for the sake of any benefit we deem worthy. This is the ultimate delusion, the final stretch of 15 mph road.

December 10, 2005

Andrew S. Fischer has worked in various fields.

Andrew S. Fischer