Jim Walsh's Big Hairy Weblog Thingy

Monday, July 07, 2008

I (Still) Can't Drive 55

Of all the really stupid things to come out of the seventies, one of the stupidest is about to make a major comeback.

Several states, most notably Michigan, are pushing for a return to the universal 55-mph speed limit. Perhaps you remember the last time we tried it back when dinosaurs roamed the earth. The idea was that you make everyone slow down to 55, you save on gas and, as a side effect, the price of gas drops. We all remember how well that worked.

What we have here is a classic case of the government doing what the government does best: making a lot of noise about an issue, until either the people get used to things and forget about it, or the problem resolves itself, at which time the incumbents rush to take credit for fixing the problem.

It didn’t work then, it won’t work now. Insanity is when you do the same thing over and over expecting a new result. Politics is built on insanity, or more specifically, the short memory of the public.

What about other factors like safety? Well, the Michigan State Police, in conjunction with that state’s Department of Transportation, say dropping the limit can do more harm than good. These two agencies worked together to raise speed limits on Michigan freeways a few years ago from 65 to 70, in an effort to promote safer, uniform traffic. It’s a proven fact that speed variations are more dangerous than high speeds.

On top of that, as a lot of us know first hand, most drivers will ignore the artificially lower limits. Speed limits should be based on engineering and safety considerations, not political expediency.

Does slowing down really save on gas? Not necessarily: according to the National Motorists’ Association, the 55-mph National Maximum Speed Limit, which was enacted specifically to save gas, had practically no impact on fuel consumption. There are several technical reasons, but what it boils down to this: Speed limits based on actual travel speeds promote better traffic flow, which reduces the amount of braking and accelerating on our roads. This has a positive effect on fuel consumption.

But even if it did save money, so what? Here’s the bottom line: if I’m willing to pay out my own pocket to drive a little faster, what’s the problem? You wanna save on gas…fine, you slow down to a crawl. Just stay the hell out of the passing lane, so I can get around you, OK?

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