- The Washington Times - Friday, July 5, 2002

Reasonable speed limits are in everyone's best interests. The question is, how do we agree on what speeds are "reasonable"?
By observing traffic flow on any given stretch of road, traffic safety engineers can arrive at a scientifically objective speed limit that corresponds to the rate of travel the majority of drivers naturally gravitate toward. This so-called "85th percentile" speed is based on the altogether sound idea that most drivers are neither reckless nor suicidal and usually drive within safe limits.
When the interstate highway system was being built in the 1950s, the 85th percentile rule was used to establish speed limits for those roads, and the engineers found that speeds of 75-80 mph were where the limits should be set. Their findings assumed 1950s-era tire, braking system and suspension technology, so if the cars of the 1950s were deemed safe to operate at 75-80 mph, then today's cars equipped with vastly superior tires, suspensions systems and brakes can surely handle comparable speeds with equal or better safety. This has, in fact, been born out by declining accident and fatality rates since the repeal of the 55-mph National Maximum Speed Limit (NMSL) back in 1995. But even so, only a handful of states have adjusted their limits to conform to the 85th percentile rule.
On most highways today, the 85th percentile speed is (as it has always been) between 70 and 80 mph but most states have set their highway maximums at 65-mph. Many still maintain the 55-mph limit, and allow 65-mph only on a few "rural" sections of their highways.
A more reasonable and perfectly safe speed limit would be in the neighborhood of 70-75 mph, in conformity with the 85th percentile rule,
though that might interfere with "revenue collection" via speed traps. But if improved traffic safety is the goal, then a change in policy is called for.
Higher limits are safer than an artificially low limits because they reduce "speed variance" a dangerous problem created by fearful motorists slamming on their brakes to avoid radar traps and by cars passing "left lane hogs" occupying the far-left (passing) lane who refuse to yield to faster-moving traffic. By raising lawful maximum speed limits to conform to the 85th percentile rule, traffic flow becomes much smoother and the problem of slow-moving drivers in the far left lane is greatly reduced, because those drivers who feel uncomfortable traveling at 70-75 mph tend to stick to the right lane, the natural lane for slower-moving traffic. Moreover, people who still insist upon driving 55 or 60-mph in the far left lane become subject to ticketing for obstructing traffic when they fail to maintain the higher speed limit. At present, police are effectively powerless to deal with left lane hogs who refuse to move right or keep up with the flow of traffic because they are technically within the letter of the law even though this behavior is demonstrably more of a safety hazard than "speeding" in excess of an arbitrary and often under-posted maximum lawful limit.
Opponents claim higher speed limits create motorized mayhem, but the facts are not on their side. For the past 50 years, overall fatality rates have been consistently declining, irrespective of changes in posted speed limits. And states that raised speed limits after the 1995 repeal of the NMSL/55-mph limit saw a significant decrease in fatalities of between 3 and 5 percent, according to data compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
Opponents also argue that higher limits will only encourage people to drive even faster. But just as very few drivers obeyed the 55 mph limit, few drive much faster than 80 mph for sustained periods other than when passing. The natural flow of 70-80 mph has been consistently observed for more than five decades now no matter what the sign by the side of the road happens to say.
Self-styled "safety" advocates, their allies in the insurance industry and rapacious law-enforcement agencies continue to oppose scientific speed limits based on the 85th percentile standard because they know that ending the sham of artificially low speed limits would drastically cut back on the number of trumped-up "speeding" tickets issued. That, in turn, would cost state and local governments millions in lost "revenue" upon which they've become quite dependent, it's worth noting. Insurance companies, meanwhile, would find it more difficult to justify premium increases. And the Naderite cartels would lose yet another public relations battle.
If the majority indeed, the overwhelming majority of American motorists are driving faster than the posted limit, the limit is clearly too low. Something is amiss when the majority of drivers on any given road at any given time are technically guilty of "speeding." We're either a nation of maniacs who love to defy death or we're simply guilty of paying no mind to legal technicalities erected by greedy politicians to help them rob us blind.
The 85 percentile rule should be the basis for establishing speed limits anything less is an invitation to highway robbery.

Eric Peters is an editorial writer for The Washington Times, and an automotive columnist for AOL, Netscape and CompuServe. EPeters952@aol.com.

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