• School Zone Speed Limits and Other Delusions

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    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
    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.

    10, 2005

    S. Fischer has worked in various fields.

    S. Fischer

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