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No Speed Limits

Speed limits should be abolished.

I don't have many political ideas of my own, but that's one of them, and I believe it is a sound and defensible one.

Why do I think speed limits should be abolished? I've disliked them ever since I started driving, but I didn't have any rational basis for the dislike until a couple of years ago, when the following two-part idea suddenly crystallized.

  • By promulgating a law that is routinely broken by most people, we have created disrespect for the law as a whole.
  • Since our most frequent mode of interaction with police is seeing police cars out to catch us as speeders, we have come to think of the police not as the guardians and allies they were meant to be, but as enemies.

The mechanics behind the first point are worthy of note. What happens is that the cognitive dissonance between the idea of being a law-abiding citizen and the action of driving over the speed limit is being resolved via the idea that speed limits are stupid. Then, once one law has been dismissed in this manner, it becomes easier to apply the same conceptual mechanism to other laws; in other words, the meme that laws can be stupid is spontaneously generated. By the way, I'm sure it was the unpleasantness of cognitive dissonance that caused my original irrational dislike of speed limits.

Those on whom I've inflicted my political idea in person often ask one of two questions.

Q: What about the statistics on accident rates and gasoline consumption?

A: Based on actual observed behavior, I speak for the vast majority when I say that (a) I don't know about the statistics, (b) I don't care about the statistics, and (c) I'm going to drive fast anyway.

One could try to use this as a starting point to prove that we don't assign infinite value to human life, but I suspect it has more to do with our inability to think about rare events. By the way, I've seen that latter idea in more than one place, but the only one I can find right now is the article On Number Numbness.

Speaking of yearly deaths, here is one we are all used to sweeping under the rug, it seems: 50,000 dead per year (in this country alone) in car accidents.


Somehow, collectively, we are willing to absorb the loss of 50,000 lives per year without any serious worry.

As for gasoline consumption, although in theory it would be possible to reduce consumption by increasing the tax on gasoline, in practice I suspect the difference in consumption at different speeds is too small to produce an economic incentive under any reasonable tax. As evidence, I've never noticed the difference myself, even when I've been keeping mileage logs.

Q: If we abolish speed limits, what do we replace them with?

A: Nothing.

That's the short answer, of course, but I come up with the same answer even when I try to think seriously about the problem—the rules of good driving are just too fuzzy, and even if they were sharp, there would be no practical way of enforcing them.

A longer answer is that we replace speed limits with a collection of memes about how to drive well. As an example, here's one of my favorites, which I will discuss in detail elsewhere.

Adjacent lanes should differ in speed by about 5–15 miles per hour.

Right now, for various reasons, memes about driving tend not to propagate. For one thing, the existence of stupid laws tends to focus our thinking on the laws, not on good driving—we exist in a state either of righteousness due to not speeding or of defiance due to speeding, and ignore the other things we should be paying attention to. For another, once we've obtained our driver licenses, there are few occasions for talking about how to drive, and hence few opportunities for self-improvement.

If we really wanted to produce good driving, there are reasonable actions that could be taken to help the memes propagate. For example, we could fund a series of public-service television spots, each containing a single meme—a kind of Schoolhouse Rock for grown-ups. Would people watch such things? I bet so. Normally, it would be completely uncool to pay attention to something educational, but given that driving is something that's familiar to all of us, and that a first-person view from a moving car has the necessary attention-getting properties, it might be possible for a well-made series to succeed.

* * *

The site Tips on speeding in the USA contains a nice collection of memes. Some of the memes are about driving in general, some are about driving faster than the surrounding traffic, and some are about not getting caught. While reading, I was reminded of a guideline I once made up.

If you're not alert enough to see the police before they see you, you're not alert enough to be speeding.

The main thing I came away with, though, was a renewed belief that speed limits and their enforcement tend to divert attention from driving safely into not getting caught.

* * *

Speed limits would make more sense if they were set to reasonable values. When I'm driving at night in the rain, I often think to myself, ah, now the speed limits are about right.


  See Also

  Foolish Consistency
  Footnote (Antiviral Memes)
  Great Idea, A
  In the HOV Lane
  Meaning of Liff, The
  Relative Speed
  Via Headlights
  Via Turn Signals

@ May (2000)
o October (2000)
o July (2002)