Speed limits are corrupt

Glenn Chatfield at Sanity in an Upside Down World recently discussed and supported the government’s use of speed limit cameras to catch speeding motorists:

The thing is, if you don’t speed, you won’t get a ticket. If I remember correctly, the cameras do not get you unless you are going more than 5mph over the limit; they wanted to account for variables in speedometers.
. . . .
Well, in this upside-down world where people think they can violate speeding laws, there are complaints by those who have been caught.
. . . .
Only in this upside-down world do people whine about getting caught breaking the law rather than just obeying it. As for me, I find it a lot more relaxing driving through town now without having my doors blown off by the rocket flashing by!
I find this position absolutely abhorrent, and I will explain why. The speeding laws are generally corrupt. They aren’t about safety. If speeds limits were about safety, they would be based on scientific engineering surveys (which, technically, is required by federal law if the state or county has received any federal highway funds). But speed limits almost never are based on such studies. As a result, speed limits generally are arbitrarily low.

The purpose of these arbitrarily low limits is to collect taxes from random motorists. Weak societies always complain about the need for more police officers (instead of having people man up a bit and buy guns to protect themselves). As a result, governments hire more officers. But then to make up for the increased number of officers, taxes must be collected. One way of collecting these taxes is to pull people over for breaking arbitrarily low speed limits.

It is analogous to what Roman soldiers used to do with the Jews, where a soldier would select a random Jew off the street and force him to carry the soldier’s equipment for one mile. Because the duty fell only on random people at random times (and because it was only a mile), people just angrily tolerated the imposition instead of revolting. Just like the Romans, we feel the need to have armed guards patrolling everywhere at all times. And just like the Romans, we must raise money to support these officers. It is easier to randomly tax some random citizens at unpredictable times than to tax everyone all at once and thereby risk a revolt. You can pacify the population even more if you do a halfway decent job of pretending that the tax is for the taxee’s own good, and that he deserves to be taxed due to his “dangerous” violation of the arbitrarily low speed limit.

I remember that in Knoxville, most of the speed limits on regular roads were actually pretty reasonable. But what the government would do to collect its take in support of the police was to lower the speed limit only on the interstates. That way, the police pulled over most of their speeders on the interstates, and they could effectively collect a tax only from foreigners who were merely traveling through the city but did not live there.  The people who actually lived in the city remained safe from the stops.  The voters wouldn’t get as upset, the government got its money, and almost everyone was happy.

A law by itself means nothing. Morally speaking, if someone wants to forcefully pull you over to the side of the road and ultimately take money from you by force, that person must have a moral justification for doing so. The mere fact that a government official writes a law is not a moral justification. A moral justification would be something along the lines of working to prevent murder or other immorality. By contrast, the desire to collect revenue is not a moral justification for robbing random citizens.

In the comments to his post, Glenn Chatfield writes:

I wouldn’t care if the purpose WAS to increase revenue, which it wasn’t, because it still gets people to slow down and obey the law.
But getting people to slow down is not a virtue in itself. That much is common sense. It should be undebatable that sometimes people drive too slowly and need to speed up.

Not just in Knoxville but actually practically everywhere, you’ll often find low speed limits along the interstates of large cities. What happens is that the government is not only trying to collect taxes from foreign motorists, but they are also lowering the speed limit way down for environmentalist purposes. The speed limit is 70 in Franklin and 55 near the middle of Nashville. Are the roads just built substantially more safely in Franklin? Of course not. Rather, the big city (not to mention Leftist city) just wants to enforce an environmental policy under the guise of “safety.” And they have basically re-enacted the Jimmy Carter national speed limit, but instead of requiring it nationwide, they only do it in their tiny little jurisdictions.

And no, the fact that cities can become crowded during rush hour gives absolutely no logical justification for lowering a speed limit. You are not legally required to drive 70 mph if the speed limit is 70. And besides, Franklin gets about as much traffic as Nashville, anyway.

Lest any of you tree huggers come back with the argument that low speed limits are good because they reduce smog or global warming or whatever, even if that were true it should be a completely separate debate. We should be handing out “environmental violation tickets” instead of speeding tickets. But instead, we have these “law and order” politicians who whine about how speeding motorists are a safety hazard, when the laws aren’t even based on safety! It is intellectual dishonesty of the gravest variety. And then they turn over your driving record to the liability insurance company — which they legally require you to do business with — so that the insurance company can jack up your insurance rates based on your “safety” violations. I’ve even heard that the insurance companies will often donate radar guns to police officers, like they are partners in the great scam.

And moreover, under both Tennessee and federal law, environmental concerns are not actually a legitimate reason for lowering a speed limit. So the law-and-order politicians and municipal judges can throw the book at you for violating these “safety” laws, and yet they violate the law themselves.

We don’t have any speed limit cameras near where I live, but if they ever bring them here, I will renew my offer to represent pro bono anyone who gets accused of vandalizing such a camera. Not that I would want to encourage such action, or anything.

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25 Responses to “Speed limits are corrupt”


  1. 1 Glenn E. Chatfield November 20, 2010 at 6:24 am

    Drew, I moved to the Cedar Rapids area from the Chicago area when the traffic around here was insignificant. As traffic built over the years people kept the same speeds as if there were no one else on the roads. The speed limit through town has always been 55 – and it doesn’t start until almost downtown – unlike most cities I’ve travelled through which start way outside of town (and I have travelled extensively in the USA). It’s 70 mph within about 5 miles and then slows to 60mph due to the increased number of exits, and then right as you get to the congested area -which has some bodacious curves – the speed drops to 55 until you are past the congested area and up it goes again. 55 is often not slow enough with the traffic in and out in this area, and the curve is treacherous in wet or snowy weather. 55 is a very reasonable speed in that area and there is no excuse for not doing it. Until the cameras were installed there were major crashes in that stretch almost weekly, and more minor crashes almost daily. There has not been a crash in that area since the speed was reduced. It WAS for safety sake, just as you slow down for school zones. While I have been in lots of areas were the speed limit was arbitrary and nonsensical for collecting revenue, this isn’t one of them. Don’t paint all speed limits with the broad brush of corruption.

  2. 2 Glenn E. Chatfield November 20, 2010 at 6:30 am

    One thing I forgot to mention is that this winding part of the highway is mostly overpass over the river and downtown and there are areas banked for the turn which makes it really interesting travel in inclimate weather.

  3. 3 Drew November 20, 2010 at 1:58 pm

    If what you say is true, your local government probably should have little trouble obeying the law which requires a traffic engineering survey before setting the speed limit. But I bet they haven’t done any.

  4. 4 Glenn E. Chatfield November 20, 2010 at 3:20 pm

    If I remember correctly, they did indeed do that.

    Nevertheless, everyone is warned as they approach the city, by signs posted before each camera saying that speed limits are photo enforced. So there is no excuse for those who get caught. If you don’t like the law, then try to change it. But obey it anyway. And if you get caught speeding, take your lumps and don’t whine about it. That is the whole point of my article.

  5. 5 Drew November 20, 2010 at 6:04 pm

    Just putting up a sign doesn’t make an otherwise immoral or legally invalid law more moral or more valid.

    If your locality really conducted a traffic engineering survey and established the limits to match the 85th percentile of free-moving traffic, then more power to them! But hardly anywhere actually does that — even though it’s legally required — so consider me at least a tad skeptical.

  6. 6 Glenn E. Chatfield November 20, 2010 at 6:16 pm

    The signs mean they have no excuse not to do the speed limit – they were forewarned and yet whine when they get a ticket!

    You can’t just declare a speed limit law morally or legally invalid just because you don’t like it.

    What do you want – unlimited speeds everywhere?!?!

  7. 7 James Brent November 20, 2010 at 10:16 pm

    A Florida county discovered around 80 percent of camera tickets were derived from drivers failing to come to a complete stop before making a right turn. Apparently speeding and running red lights were not generating much revenue. County officials wisely voted to get rid of the cameras on the basis of the study which produced this statistic. Wonder how many other communities are similarly situated?

  8. 8 Dan Trabue February 17, 2011 at 1:00 pm

    Drew…

    They aren’t about safety. If speeds limits were about safety, they would be based on scientific engineering surveys… But speed limits almost never are based on such studies. As a result, speed limits generally are arbitrarily low.

    Hope you don’t mind my hopping back to this one, but traffic studies and policies are of interest to me. I have to wonder where you are getting your information?

    Speed limits aren’t about safety? Speed limits are arbitrarily LOW?

    Do you know that “Worldwide it was estimated in 2004 that 1.2 million people were killed (2.2% of all deaths) and 50 million more were injured in motor vehicle collisions.” source?

    Did you know that in the US, in 2010, “more than 30,000 people died and over 2.4 million people were injured in traffic collisions.” source

    Did you know that “Speeding is a factor in about one-third of all fatal crashes, killing more than 1,000 Americans every month.” source

    I’m not saying that some local authorities might not like the revenue that is generated from traffic tickets, but if anything, we have laws and road designs that encourage speeding too much, and don’t crack down on speeding enough.

    But hardly anywhere actually does that — even though it’s legally required

    It is my understanding that we are required by law to do this in Kentucky and that we DO do this in Kentucky.

    I’m not sure how you could come to the conclusion found in your title, that “speed limits are corrupt…”?? I could see saying like, “speed traps are corrupt…,” but speed limits themselves? Hardly.

    What are you advocating? Removing speed limits? Or are you a supporter of speed limits, but just want to see the gov’t mandate to do studies to determine them enforced?

  9. 9 Drew February 19, 2011 at 2:34 pm

    Dan, you should visit the NMA website and educate yourself a bit on this issue.

    http://www.motorists.org/speed-limits/faq

    Just throwing out statistics that show a lot of traffic fatalities, and then stating that one-third of fatalities involve speeding as a “factor” doesn’t mean much to me. Obviously a crash will be more serious if the car is going faster, but it could easily be that many of those fatality crashes wouldn’t be crashes AT ALL if the speed limit had been set in accordance with sound engineering principles. And saying that something is a “factor” also means very little, because a multitude of factors can contribute to an event.

    “Research conducted by the Florida Department of Transportation showed that the percentage of accidents actually caused by speeding is very low, 2.2 percent.” (NMA Website)

    It is my understanding that we are required by law to do this in Kentucky and that we DO do this in Kentucky.

    I don’t live in Kentucky, but I would be willing to bet that your understanding is wrong.

  10. 10 Glenn E. Chatfield February 19, 2011 at 2:41 pm

    Drew, I looked at that site and think it is very informative, but they certainly err in their claim about 55mph not saving fuel. I have done my own testing with this for decades, with every car I have owned, and consistent get the best mileage between 55 and 60 mph. Going faster always consumes more fuel, and the faster I travel the more fuel I burn. Just use my 2008 Toyota Sienna as an example. When I took a trip which was mostly 2-lane highway with 55mph limit, I got 33mpg. I have repeated this several times and always get 32-33 mpg. When I travel the interstate at 65-70mph (I do the speed limit because it is the law) with the same vehicle, I consistently get 26-28 mpg.

    The results for every car I have owned since 1976 gets similar results.

  11. 11 Dan Trabue February 19, 2011 at 3:29 pm

    I will check out the Motorists Association, but a quick look at it makes me worry about their objectivity. It sounds like a group that is most interested in protecting motorists perceived rights and that then goes and finds the research to support it.

    I could be wrong, but that’s the feel I got off them in a quick look through.

    For instance, they actually encourage all motorists to challenge all tickets in court? Why?

    I think you’d be better off getting data from a group that isn’t out to protect motorists’ “rights.”

    From their “about us” page…

    we want to drive what we want to drive, go where we want to go and in the process not be unwitting cannon fodder for self-serving government programs, over-bearing police departments or greedy courts.

    This sounds like a group with an agenda, not interested in responsibility or research but on getting “the man” off their backs.

    I’ll research more (both what they say and what others might be saying about them…)

    Thanks for the link.

  12. 12 Glenn E. Chatfield February 19, 2011 at 3:37 pm

    I forgot to mention, that I originally thought the local speed cameras got you if you went over 5 mph, but I was wrong; they don’t bother you until you are at least 10 mph over the limit, which means in order to get a ticket in the 55 mph zone, they have to be doing at least 66 mph, and in my book they well-deserve a ticket!

  13. 13 Dan Trabue February 19, 2011 at 3:59 pm

    The more I read about NMA, the more it sounds like an organization of trial attorneys who specialize in defending drunk drivers and speeders.

    Color me unimpressed, so far. Still researching.

  14. 14 Dan Trabue February 19, 2011 at 4:05 pm

    Being a lawyer, Drew, do you know if NMA was started by lawyers?

  15. 15 Dan Trabue February 19, 2011 at 5:53 pm

    Drew…

    Obviously a crash will be more serious if the car is going faster, but it could easily be that many of those fatality crashes wouldn’t be crashes AT ALL if the speed limit had been set in accordance with sound engineering principles.

    Sound traffic-engineering principles would tell us, I’m quite sure, that driving more slowly allows more respond time for the motorist. Driving more slowly allows more brake time for motorists.

    Drew…

    I don’t live in Kentucky, but I would be willing to bet that your understanding is wrong.

    I live in Louisville and have been on bicycling advocacy boards, and I’ve seen firsthand that in Louisville, our roads are built based upon traffic engineered studies. What the parameters were for those studies, I couldn’t say, but know that there were/are traffic engineering/urban planning types of studies involved in all our new roads built in at least our seven county region around Louisville.

    Drew…

    you should visit the NMA website and educate yourself a bit on this issue.

    I am fairly well educated on this issue. You should do read some research that is coming from some organization that doesn’t have an agenda to protect motorists’ “rights.”

    for instance…

    “the speed limit in New York City is 30 mph and that it is no arbitrary number. It is set at that level largely because a pedestrian struck at 40 mph is 3.5 times more likely to be killed than one struck at 30 mph.”

    http://www.nyc.gov/html/dot/html/about/pedsafetyreport.shtml

  16. 16 Drew February 19, 2011 at 11:09 pm

    Sound traffic-engineering principles would tell us, I’m quite sure, that driving more slowly allows more respond time for the motorist. Driving more slowly allows more brake time for motorists.

    Yeah, well sound REALITY principles would tell us that many people aren’t going to obey a speed limit that is arbitrary and oppressive, and that therefore we would see a range of speeds on the same road, which could contribute to accidents.

    And sound moral principles would also tell us that reducing accidents to the bare minimum isn’t necessarily the most efficient way to govern the roads, and that aiming for absolute safety is a good way to get authoritarianism.

  17. 17 Glenn E. Chatfield February 20, 2011 at 7:58 am

    Drew your whole premise is that the speed limits are arbitrary, and I submit that they are not. I also think you put too much stock in that organization’s data.

    Are there places where speed limits are set for corrupt reasons? You betcha. I can point out a place in Columbus, OH suburb that lasts for 1/2 mile and they are 10mph slower than both sides, with non-reflective speed limit signs – as a speed trap especially at night. But it is a logic fallacy to say that this is the normal thing with speed limits.

    I have driven in 44 of the 50 states in just about every travel condition you can imagine, and for the most part the speed limits are certainly proper for the road. I do think it is ridiculous for some states to have speed on Interstates at 60 or 65 or 70 or 75 – they should be consistent.

  18. 18 Drew February 20, 2011 at 1:03 pm

    I can point out a place in Columbus, OH suburb that lasts for 1/2 mile and they are 10mph slower than both sides, with non-reflective speed limit signs – as a speed trap especially at night. But it is a logic fallacy to say that this is the normal thing with speed limits.

    Oh really? Do you think a different entity sets the speed limit on that road than everywhere else in Columbus? Do you think the (hypothetical) entity that sets all the other speed limits is significantly more honest?

    Anyway, I’m not arguing based on logic; I’m arguing based on my own experience. In any situation where the speed limit has been properly set, then obviously my argument doesn’t hold.

    And you may question my data, but the alternative source listed by Dan (the IIHS) specifically argues that speed limits should be arbitrarily set, and not set based on engineering surveys as required by the law. You can see that on the website he posted. So I guess at least you know where they stand, too.

  19. 19 Glenn E. Chatfield February 20, 2011 at 1:12 pm

    By the way, I made a mistake – it was 3/10ths of a mile, and yes a different entity established those limits. It is a suburb called New Rome and Columbus surrounds it.

    By what standards do you determine whether a speed limit is properly set? Are you familiar with all the studies that went into every speed limit in the country, so that when are where ever you are you can say without a doubt that the speed limit was arbitrarily set?

    So what do you want – no speed limits at all? Anarchy on the roads?

  20. 20 Drew February 20, 2011 at 2:32 pm

    I doubt that eliminating all speed limits would be nearly as terribly as you seem to believe. But the better solution would probably just be to set speed limits based on the 85th percentile of natural traffic speed.

    By what standards do I determine whether a limit has been properly set? If it’s based on the 85th percentile of natural traffic speed, then it’s been properly set. No, I have not driven on every stretch of road in America or seen the studies for every stretch of road. But when a limit is arbitrarily low, I think I can usually feel it just by driving on the road.

  21. 21 Glenn E. Chatfield February 20, 2011 at 2:56 pm

    Here’s my point. What makes the 85th percentile the proper speed? Because somebody said so? How do we know those numbers weren’t contrived to get higher speed limits? And if 85% of the people drove a particular speed on a segment of highway, that doesn’t thereby make it a safe speed to be driving. I’m one of few people who reduces speed in bad weather – I watch at least 90% of the the cars blow by me like I’m standing still; and quite a few of those end up in the ditch and I will often smile and wave as I go by (I know that’s mean, but they deserved it).

    So it is your “feeling” that a speed limit is arbitrarily low? What kind of a standard is that? You are the one being arbitrary – it has to meet your standards or else it is arbitrary. What kind of a rule is that? Drew, I hate to say this, but you are being totally illogical.

  22. 22 Drew February 20, 2011 at 3:24 pm

    The 85th percentile is the proper speed because scientists have said so, and because the federal Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices says so. Why should anyone else’s opinion be superior to that? Furthermore, even if you don’t agree with that basis for speeds, it’s the law, and it’s hypocritical for anyone to require legal obedience to an illegal speed limit.

    And you seem to think that my intuitions about the 85th percentile are erroneous. But have you ever been on a road where more than 15% of the people were exceeding the posted limit? Then congratulations, you have some intuitions, too!

  23. 23 Glenn E. Chatfield February 20, 2011 at 4:05 pm

    AH! those famous “scientists” said so. Scientists also say evolution is true.

    I wasn’t disputing the 85% observation so much as I am saying that is not an excuse for declaring a speed limit arbitrary. And there is no such thing as an “illegal” speed limit, because the people who have been given the power to make the laws are the ones who make the speed limits. My point has been from the beginning that a speed limit is a law, whether you agree with it being proper or not, it just doesn’t matter. It is a law and it doesn’t hurt one iota to obey that law. And Christians especially are called to obey the law of the land unless it conflicts with God’s law.

    As for my “feeling” while driving in bad weather, especially snow, I’d say 85-90% of the people drive faster than is safe for conditions, as noted in my previous comment. I certainly wouldn’t want these idiots to declare what a proper speed limit should be.

  24. 24 Dan Trabue February 20, 2011 at 4:27 pm

    Drew…

    well sound REALITY principles would tell us that many people aren’t going to obey a speed limit that is arbitrary and oppressive

    1. People aren’t going to obey murder laws if they feel they are “arbitrary and oppressive.” Is that an argument for getting rid of murder laws? No.

    2. Who SAYS they’re arbitrary? Ration and science shows us that slower rates of speed generally allow for better and safer driving. IF we set laws based on science and reason, then they are NOT arbitrary.

    Drew…

    And sound moral principles would also tell us that reducing accidents to the bare minimum isn’t necessarily the most efficient way to govern the roads

    “Efficient??” I’m looking for safety, not “efficiency.” IF our one and only goal is to get people from point A to point B and we don’t care about how many lives are lost or how much societal and environmental degradation is done or how massive our gov’t, then we can create ten lane roads everywhere with a speed limit of 100 mph. Efficiency is only ONE measure of how to move people around and not necessarily the best and certainly not the most moral.

    Beyond that, if “efficiency” is our goal, bicycles are the most efficient mode of transportation. They allow for MUCH smaller gov’t intervention (ie, smaller roads, smaller taxes, smaller enforcement), MUCH greater health benefits and MUCH greater use of energy.

    IF you’re limiting “efficiency” to simply “moving people around as quickly as possible,” THEN maybe you’re correct (MAYBE, there are many factors to consider). But moving people around in the fastest way (which trains can generally do and be most efficient, now that I think of it) is not our overriding measure of quality transportation, or shouldn’t be. Seems to me.

  25. 25 Dan Trabue February 20, 2011 at 4:34 pm

    Drew…

    But the better solution would probably just be to set speed limits based on the 85th percentile of natural traffic speed.

    “Natural traffic speed” is EXACTLY an effect of gov’t policy. Over most of the last century, we’ve been enacting policies at a BIG gov’t level to encourage the use of personal autos. We built wider and wider, faster and faster roads without asking, “Is this the BEST way to deal with mobility.”

    In an amoral anarchy, the “best, most efficient” way of getting around would be to have super fast tanks with the ability to roll over slower cars or blast them out of our way. But that’s not any way to handle a safe, just, rational society.

    Roads that have been designed to move more cars more quickly are a result of gov’t planning and design. If we build more pedestrian- and civic-friendly streets, then “natural traffic speed” will be much slower. It’s all a matter of design and planning.

    Here’s one of my favorite traffic-related quotes that fits here…

    Trying to solve traffic problems by building bigger highways is like trying to solve obesity by building bigger belts…


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