The editor’s opinion from Marketplace, Northeast Wisconsin’s business magazine. (Obligatory disclaimer: Most hyperlinks go to outside sites, and we’re not responsible for their content. And like fresh watermelon, peaches, pineapple, grapefruit, tomatoes and sweet corn, hyperlinks can go bad after a while.)

May 1, 2008

Speed kills … time

I do a lot of driving. It’s a good thing that I enjoy driving, because I drive a lot, and have ever since I started work after college in a county that is 100 square miles larger than Rhode Island.

My new commute from Ripon to Menasha is longer distance-wise, but only slightly longer time-wise, and infinitely more pleasant than my former commute from Ripon to Fond du Lac. The latter drive on Wisconsin 23 (a road that desperately needs upgrading to four lanes; the fact it isn’t may be a commentary on the effectiveness of western Fond du Lac County’s elected representatives in Madison) features two notorious speed traps, the Town of Ripon (which is separate from the City of Ripon) and Rosendale; slow trucks, farm equipment and elderly drivers on a road with few passing opportunities; and the choice between driving through Fond du Lac or taking the longer four-lane bypass around the city (a route that appears to compel bad driving, which has compelled some to incorrectly suggest adding stoplights and has compelled the Department of Transportation to redesign the bypass). Wisconsin 44 between Ripon and Oshkosh features only the Town of Ripon speed trap and a slowdown at Pickett (where my cell phone never seems to work).

I tend to push the edge between the speed limit and the speed at which the police notice you, a quality I seem to share with most drivers on U.S. 41. This is worth pointing out given that this morning (Law Day, incidentally) begins “Summer Heat,” a state Department of Transportation initiative through Sept. 30 to harass drivers and waste gasoline — I mean, ticket speeders and combat “other dangerous driving behavior” on 41 between Marinette and Menomonee Falls and Interstate 94 from Eau Claire to the Minnesota state line.

The DOT’s “Summer Heat” propaganda claims that speed “was a contributing factor in 37 percent of all fatal crashes” and “was a contributing factor in nearly 20,000 crashes.” For one thing, the DOT is guilty of bad writing; leaving out the word “excessive” before “speed ‘was a contributing factor’” seems to imply that any speed was a contributing factor, including 1 mph. More to the point, the DOT seems to be trying to inflate the importance of speeding beyond actual fact; it does the same thing by asserting that “alcohol is involved” in one-third of all fatal traffic crashes. Note that the DOT doesn’t say that excessive speed or drunk driving caused that many accidents; only that it was “a contributing factor.” I’ll bet “other dangerous driving behavior” doesn’t include people driving slower than the speed limit (a growing group of people who believe they get better gas mileage at slower speeds, a notion that will be dispelled five paragraphs from now), even though people who drive 10 mph slower than the speed limit are six times as likely to get into a crash than those who drive up to 10 mph faster than the speed limit. I’ve got a better statistic for you: Drivers are a contributing factor in 100 percent of automobile crashes. (The speeding and drunk driving numbers also make me think the DOT is double-counting, although simultaneous excessive speed and drunk driving certainly cause crashes.)

Most speed limits are not set at the traffic engineers’ standard of the 85th percentile — that is, the speed of 85 percent of unimpeded traffic. Speed limits are usually political creations incorporating revenue generation opportunities, which in Wisconsin begin at $160 for a ticket for speeding up to 10 mph over posted limits (one prediction: speed enforcement will increase if a Taxpayer Bill of Rights is ever enacted in this state), combined with constituent tachophobia — fear of speed, which is justifiable near schools and neighborhoods but nowhere else. One town of 1,400 people is so intoxicated with traffic ticket revenue from speed traps that it maintains a police department that actually loses money for the township, from what I’m told. I’m not going to say which township this is (although its name starts with the same letters as the word “ripoff”), but I’d advise watching your speed when you drive west from Rosendale, southwest from Pickett, or east from Green Lake. (If I were governor, speed traps outside of school zones would be illegal.)

Like anything else, a law is obeyed in direct proportion to the perceived reasonableness of that law — the more unreasonable the law is perceived to be, the less likely that law is to be obeyed. The federal government set a national speed limit of 55 mph in 1975, which was supposed to be a temporary response to the energy crisis of that time, enforced by the threatened loss of federal transportation funds for states that didn’t adopt 55. (That is a subject of a future blog entry.) Over the next dozen years, people voted with their right foot as to how reasonable 55 was, particularly on freeways with design speeds exceeding 70 mph. The speed limit was increased to 65 mph for Interstates in 1987 (other non-Interstate freeways later), and then the national speed limit was eliminated altogether in 1995.

Despite that, Wisconsin hasn’t touched its speed limit laws significantly since then, other than to extend 65 to non-freeway four-lanes, such as U.S. 10 west of Fremont and U.S. 41 and 141 north of Abrams. In fact, the freeway speed limit could be increased all the way to 80 mph without much effect on speed, according to a U.S. Department of Transportation study. Drivers usually will drive at speeds they consider to be reasonable, so artificially low speed limits serve to only increase the number of tickets written by local law enforcement, while simultaneously encouraging disrespect for the law in general and those charged with enforcing the law. (The speed limit on Interstate 94 between Chicago and the Illinois–Wisconsin state line is 55 mph. No one drives 55 on 94.)

Every time I see a county sheriff’s or Wisconsin State Patrol squad car sitting on the side of a road — as those of us who travel 41 apparently will see a lot more of with “Summer Heat” — I wonder how many actual criminals are not being caught because that police car is sitting in one spot instead of preventing actual crimes by its patrol presence. (And, by the way, speeding is not a crime — legally, it’s an ordinance violation, not a misdemeanor or felony. The difference is that, unlike crimes that require the prosecution’s proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, speeding violations are based on a strict liability standard — if the officer proves you were speeding, you’re guilty unless you can prove some kind of error in speed measurement.)

What about fuel consumption, which usually increases beyond a certain speed? (We once owned a car where that was not the case — this car spent three weeks in Georgia during the 1996 Olympics, and got 33 mpg at 75 mph. My current car gets a quite acceptable to 27 to 28 mpg at my driving speeds.) Contrary to what U.S. Rep. Steve Kagen (D–Appleton) thinks, gas prices are where they are because of overseas demand, decisions to not drill in this country, the lack of refineries, and Wisconsin’s stupid minimum markup law. Cars with gas mileage meters also demonstrate that the largest amount of fuel is used not in maintaining speed, but in accelerating to highway speed.

What about safety? Setting higher speed limits on freeways encourages people to drive on freeways, which are, after all, designed for higher speeds, with ramps to get on and off and no cross or head-on traffic. Crash rates are much higher on two-lane roads, where drivers experience head-on traffic, intersections, driveways and passing into oncoming traffic, than on freeways. Cars and highways are also safer, which is why we don’t have the death rates of even 40 years ago. Between 1975, the year before the 55 mph national speed limit was mandated, and 1996, nine years after the end of said mandated national speed limit, the death rate per million miles driven dropped from 3.5 to 1.7. Driving at the prevailing traffic speed is safer than slavishly following the speed limit.

Even more interesting is the German autobahn, which has no speed limits at all over most of its nearly 7,000 miles. According to Mark Rask, author of American Autobahn, Germany’s auto death rate has dropped 70 percent since 1970, even with their speed non-limits. In 2001, Rask notes, the death rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled was 0.59 in Germany, vs. 0.81 in the U.S. (One reason: Driver’s licensing requirements are much more stringent in Germany than here. Another, I believe, is that car safety improvements, such as air bags and antilock brakes, have had the unintended consequence of making drivers less careful, as though their vehicles will cover their own driver error.)

There are two areas in which Wisconsin has proven wiser than some other states; one is in not setting lower night and truck speed limits. Doing so is a recipe for more accidents, because high speeds do not cause crashes; variations in speed between vehicles cause crashes. The state also has resisted the push for remote cameras to generate tickets for speeding or running red lights or sobriety checkpoints, perhaps because someone in state government has figured out that both are blatantly unconstitutional (the Fourth and Fifth Amendments, to be precise).

Beyond all these arguments, the fact is that there is only one truly, provably finite and nonrenewable resource: time. (This fact will be deliberately missed on the idiot in the next Congress who introduces a bill to reimpose a low national speed limit under the guise of energy conservation.) Whether you save, on a 40-mile trip, seven minutes driving 65 vs. 55, or 14 minutes by driving 80 vs. 55, that is your own time to do with as you please. This is not insignificant because of another reality — life has a 100 percent death rate.


Lance said...

Wonderful article. Lots of good points with references to legitimate information.

I am the admin of, a site about speed traps and avoiding them. There's also information on laws, speed limits, red light cameras, radar detectors, etc.

Check it out!

JDHboe said...

Great article Steve; I really agree that the vehicles which are going too SLOW are more of an issue than those going too fast. Elderly who are not capable of driving close to the speed limit have no business being on the roads, and farm equipment being driven without flashing lights are much more dangerous situations. I'd like to see a statistic as to how many accidents occur with farm equipment which only have the 'orange/red triangle' on the back--useless in most cases.

Also, as to speeding up travel-- especially between small cities-- how about requiring that no new developments or schools be built next to State and County Highways? Ripon, Rosendale, Fond du Lac and many others have built new subdivisions and schools just outside the city limits on highways, which then necessitates extending the city boundary and of course lowering the speed limit. If municipalities had to build within their borders, and away from highways, we'd be able to proceed through them much quicker. Keep up the excellent writing!--Derek

Robert said...

When I drive 65 on the highway in a somewhat (but not overly so) hilly area for 50 miles, my gas mileage averages 28-30 mpg (in an Audi A3). If I drive 85 or so, the mileage drops down to 23 or so. Speed makes a big difference in fuel efficiency -- when averaged over a very large number of vehicles (especially those that are much larger than yours: consider a huge SUV) it can make an appreciable difference in number of gallons consumed. Vehicles are most efficient traveling about 50 mph. Of course there are incalculable costs in making everyone's trip longer, but I believe that there would be an appreciable difference in gas price if everyone were to drive 50 mph, especially given that large SUVs have a much greater inefficiency at high speeds than your Outback, which has less wind resistance.

Also, having been to Germany several times, the highways have speed limits in most places if you are anywhere near a decently sized city -- the speed limit only ends once you have left the vicinity of where most people live. Additionally, I don't think it's correct to compare accident rates with Germany, since their vehicle licensing system is very different. Drivers in Germany are much better trained, as they have to spend many hours learning driving theory and such, and it also ends up costing about $3000 USD or so to become a licensed driver. The licenses are also for life. The incidence of uninsured and unlicensed drivers could also make for a large difference in accident rates; at least here in California a lot of accidents are with uninsured or unlicensed drivers due to the number of immigrants.