January 18, 2007


I was listening to Neil Boortz on the radio the other day, and I haven't been able to stop thinking about something he said. He was talking about speed limits, and apparently he's a big proponent of not having any. He says

The next time you're driving on an expressway keep track of the number of times you have to change what you're doing on the road because of a fast driver. How many times do you have to change your speed or your lane because someone is driving faster than you are? Now remember ... we're talking just speed. You may have to slow down because someone swerves into your lane .. but how many times do you have to change your speed or anything else about your driving technique simply because someone goes by driving ten or twenty miles per hour faster than you are.

Ahhh .. but how many times do you have to change what you're doing because of a slower driver? You're doing the speed limit in one of the left lanes, and suddenly you're behind a minivan going 10mph slower than you are. You have to (1) slow down, and (2) change lanes. Then you (3) speed up and then (4) change back into your travel lane after you've gone around the bluehair. The slowing down and lane often creates a ripple effect though the other drivers on the road. One of them may be caught off guard .. and a crash ensues.

Someone called in to the show and said that he drives an old VW bus and that he typically goes about 65 because his car can't handle higher speeds. Boortz told him that he has no business being on the expressway then, and he should stick to two-lane highways.

I've lived in a country with no speed limits. That doesn't really solve the problem. What Boortz apparently really wants is speed minimums. In Germany you could drive as fast as your wheels could take you, but there was still a steady stream of Dutch campers in the right hand lane going 65. So if I wanted to maintain a speed of, say, 80, I was constantly weaving in and out of campers going 65 and Audis going 95. I think I did more lane-changing and swerving in Germany than I do here in the US. Eliminating the speed limit in Germany didn't eliminate slow drivers; it just made the disparity even bigger. What Boortz appears to want is no upper limits paired with enforceable minimums. I'm not sure how we can force people to avoid expressways as they drive across the US.

German driving reminds me of French handwriting. When I lived in France, I was amazed that every French person seems to have the same handwriting. Apparently their handwriting training is strict, and they get graded on handwriting far longer than American kids do. I was even told they handwrite their job applications so employers can do handwriting analysis to find out their habits and tendencies. That's intense. So with the strict emphasis on following the rules of writing, they all end up with very similar penmanship. Same with German driving: the rules of the road are higher stakes than ours are since folks think nothing of driving 95 mph. Germans learn the rules and are much more likely to follow them. The traffic might be going pretty fast, but surprises and bonehead behavior is less likely.

Americans drive like their handwriting: everyone's got different rules going on. I think stricter adherence to the rules regarding lane changes and so forth is more important than speeds. You'll still have the pokey folks going 60 mph in the right lane, but at least they'll stay there!

Incidentally, I don't speed here in the US. I was comfortable driving 80 mph in Germany, but what I'm not comfortable with is getting a ticket. I set the cruise directly on the speed limit and get passed by nearly every car and semi out there. So folks are already speeding, regardless of what the signs say. Following the rules of the road will do more to prevent accidents than speeds do. Boortz says as much on his website, but he was focusing a lot on speeds on his radio show, which didn't sit right with me.

Actually, getting people to get off their damn cell phones would be a big step in the right direction. The first rule of driving is to Pay Attention...

Posted by Sarah at January 18, 2007 11:14 AM | TrackBack

I never talk on my cell while I drive. Its too distracting. You know, I often wonder, when I see just about everyone talking & driving "who are they talking to? and what is so important that you need to talk and drive, talk & shop (at grocery store, Target, just about anywhere). I mean, cant it wait until you are home?

Posted by: keri at January 18, 2007 12:45 PM

I think it's reasonable to talk on the phone while driving (I do it frequently) as long as you NEVER forget that your number one priority is driving the car safely. The people on the road who are dangerous, quite simply, are the ones who lose sight of that essential fact.

Banning the use of cell phones while driving does not prevent other sources of distraction (radio, children, scenery, etc) from grabbing the attention of drivers who allow themselves to be distracted, and the logic of "because some act irresponsibly when doing X, we should ban everyone from doing X" leads down a dangerously repressive political road--one which is profoundly destructive of the individual competence necessary to sustain a democracy.

I agree with Sarah that the rules of the road which determine relative positioning, especially those regarding lane usage or spacing in adverse weather conditions, are more important than speed regulations in preventing accidents. Evidently, however, I am also more comfortable "expanding" the freeway speed limits somewhat...

Fast, but not aggressive! It works for me.

Posted by: Piercello at January 18, 2007 02:55 PM

Piercello: Cell phone talking maybe isn't always causation -- because sometimes folks are just bad drivers, phone or not -- but think of all the times you've noticed correlation! I'm never surprised when someone who does something completely dangerous on the road has a phone in hand.

Posted by: Sarah at January 18, 2007 03:00 PM

Certainly! It's just that we have to be careful about the choice of remedy, from a policy point of view. I have also seen lots of dangerous, reckless, and otherwise situationally unaware driving that DIDN'T involve cell phones. I've actually gotten to the point where I am rarely -surprised- by the actions of other drivers, although I am frequently aggravated (usually mildly) whenever I run across inconsiderate or incompetent driving (occasionally it's me, although I work hard on that!). Of course, for years I have been driving more than 30k miles per year...

I think we need to stress what to do (drive safely and courteously) rather than regulate through an expanding list of things not to do. It's a much more efficient way of doing business, and has the added bonus of focusing peoples' minds on what they are doing, not what they aren't.

Posted by: Piercello at January 18, 2007 05:28 PM

Oh how I can relate! I obey the speed limits here in the states because 1) getting to my destination 10 minutes earlier isn't worth a $150 speeding ticket and 2) it's much easier to stop or avoid a bad situation going 65 than it is going 95...the latter will almost always get you killed. I agree that speed limits are good, if all they do is keep a few people on the road afraid of hefty tickets going a reasonable speed. I do miss the German road rules. Slow people in the right, passers in the left...when done passing, back to the right. I am certainly classified as a "slow" driver and it STILL irritates me when another slow driver chooses to putz along in the right-hand lane and then clog traffic in both lanes. It's hard to get good gas mileage when, although you're only going 65, you're constantly braking and speeding up to accomodate these people!

Posted by: Nicole at January 20, 2007 01:16 PM

The real problem with speed limits is that you have "virtuous" people driving on the road. They are going the speed limit and you damned well better do it too! So they move to the inside lane and block faster traffic... because they have appointed themselves as traffic arbiters.

That's where the "speed limit" becomes a detraction. Because there is always someone who likes that inside lane and either has no concept that they are blocking traffic or they are trying to control traffic.

Out in the mid-west there is a minimum speed limit for interstate highways... it's 45mph. If you can't go at least that fast, you don't belong on a highway! I don't see that on the east coast and I see people on highways up here going 30mph!!! How dangerous is that when you have people whipping down the road at 65+ mph.

Then there's the fact that many people in the northeast never learned how to drive properly - like coming to a dead stop on highway entrance ramps... that kind of thing. It's a scary world up here - I thought Chicago was bad until I moved out here. Yikes!

But it's a large country and rules of the road that make sense out in the mid-west and west are dangerous on the east coast with its cramped narrow roads. Speed limits, or lack thereof, should be a state by state issue - not national. Someone from Massachusetts, who has never driven from say St. Louis to South Dakota, has zero concept of what that trip is like, so why should they have a say in how the roads are set up for driving?

Posted by: Teresa at January 20, 2007 03:20 PM

Argh. I could care less about how fast or slow anyone goes. But for Christ's sake, if you are going 40 mph on the freeway, stay the hell in the right lane (instead of setting your cruise while driving in the left lane and looking at the 12 cars behind you thinking, why don't they just pass me on the right?) That is one thing I'll never get used to in the states. It literally makes me crazy. And they wonder why people have road rage.

Posted by: Erin at January 24, 2007 10:28 PM