An Argument for the Abolition of Interstate Speed Limits.

- -

I just drove to Cleveland. It's a pretty uneventful drive, not really a whole lot in between here and Chicago, but there's one thing about this drive that really puzzles me: why is the speed limit throughout Ohio 65mph, and why are there a bazillion cops on the side of the road waiting to catch people speeding?

I'm not as naïve as that query would make me appear. I understand that many local municipalities depend on the income from speeding tickets, but if that's really the reason, that brings up an even more pressing question: why are municipalities dependent on the income from crime to survive? Not only is that a tacit acknowledgment that no amount of effort expended yet has eradicated highway speeding, but it's even worse than that: in order for these local municipalities to survive, people must speed and must get caught. That's also pretty disturbing, but let's peel back another layer or two of this particular onion, as I'm in the mood to muse right now.

I drive a car that does not have cruise control. The last car I owned that had cruise control was the 1989 Mitsubishi Sigma I drove in high school. One of the harsh realities of living without cruise control is that it is very difficult to maintain a speed that feels slow for the road you're on. For example, 60mph feels really really really fast if you're driving on CA-17, an absolute deathtrap of a road that looks like an errant strand of spaghetti someone dropped on the Sierras. 60mph does not feel very fast at all if you're driving on the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System, which consists of mostly straight, wide roads. In particular, it does not feel very fast if you're driving between Chicago and Cleveland. Go ahead and look at a map; there is almost complete nothingness between those two cities. When you approach Cleveland the speed limit drops from 65mph—which is already pretty hard to maintain if you're not using cruise control—to 60mph.

Now, obviously, it's not impossible to maintain a speed of 65-70mph, particularly if you have the kind of crappy car that doesn't have cruise control, but I would argue that it is not safe. When I'm driving in parts of the country with higher speed limits or no speed limit at all on highways, I can concentrate all of my attention on driving, but in areas with lower and more heavily-enforced speed limits, I have to constantly look at my speedometer to see if I am driving at the proper speed. When I started to notice just how much more frequently I was having to do this in Ohio than in Indiana today, I reckoned at the time I was checking my speedometer a few times a minute. Think about that for just a second: several times a minute, I had to take my eyes off the road, look at my dashboard, and adjust my speed accordingly. Even if it takes less than a second, that's still a few seconds out of every minute that I might as well be looking anywhere because I'm not looking at the road. I would argue that this is a safety concern, as I know I'm not the only one who doesn't have cruise control.

My solution is very simple, very easy to do, will have very little impact on safety over the long term, and is extremely cost-effective: don't enforce speed limits in unpopulated areas. In cities, obviously, there's a lot more going on with cars entering and exiting the highway at fantastic rates, and a lot more potential for accidents, so it's more than reasonable to limit speed in urban or populated areas to a speed that will be safe for all sections of the highway within that area. At the same time, though, it makes very little sense to limit speed and actively enforce outside of populated communities since in the absence of speed limits, people will generally drive a speed at which they're comfortable. People will still slow down for curves and they're still going to slow down when there's someone pulled over at the side of the road—in many states there are laws for this—but people will be able to concentrate fully on driving and won't have to worry about having to work hard at maintaining a legal speed.

Seat belts save lives. Airbags... it's debatable but in most cases they save lives. These are great things, but it's a little-known fact here in the land of SUVs that super-tight suspensions save lives, and high-performance brakes save lives. When you're removed from the notion that in order to be safe you have to be enclosed in some giant monstrosity of a vehicle, you start to realize that, actually being a skilled driver will keep you safer than anything else. That's right. You drive safely by being a good driver and speed by itself is not a very good gauge of safety.

Stay tuned for my other favourite driving rants like how we should raise the driving age to 18 and require more comprehensive driver's education classes in school. I'm exhausted. Later, space cadets.