OPINION – Red, white and blue are supposedly the colors of freedom. But that’s not what most of us feel when we see them strobing in our rear-view mirror.
Most drivers, no matter how conscientious, experience a type of anxiety when they spot a police car while driving. This is particularly true when a police car is following us. It’s not that the police themselves are feared. It’s the recognition that some traffic laws constitute a type of negative lottery that few of us would wish to “win.”
Speed limit enforcement can be a good example of this. It’s simply a form of taxation by citation.
All of us have heard of or encountered speed traps in our travels. This is where the speed limit is set artificially low for the prevailing driving conditions and enforcement is very strict. Drivers don’t have to be doing anything unsafe; they merely have to exceed the speed limit by a singe mile per hour to be pulled over and cited.
The City of Leeds used to be notorious for nabbing motorists as they exited Interstate 15. If your speed hadn’t dropped to 35 mph by the time you hit the cattle guard at the end of the off-ramp, it was common to be cited for speeding. Leeds even attempted to boost revenue by offering its own traffic school so busted drivers could be “forgiven” by paying for and taking the class.
Thankfully this did not pass the sniff test and the city was forced to put an end to the practice a few years ago.
We’re often told that speed limits are all about our safety, but there’s an easy way to demonstrate this falsehood. When the national 55 mph speed limit was established in 1974, it was touted as a way to reduce energy consumption. However, after the imposition of the slower mandatory national speed limit, we were taught the mantra “55 stay alive” to promote safety.
Up until that time, most of the nation’s highways had a speed limit of 70 mph. What was considered a perfectly safe speed for highway driving suddenly became illegal simply by the enactment of an administrative law. This means that the roadside lectures about how “speed kills” were really little more than state-sponsored melodrama to justify punishing drivers for exceeding an arbitrary number.
Punishment for speeding varies from state to state, but a large majority of states threaten jail time and hundreds of dollars in fines. In some states, exceeding the posted limit by 20 mph constitutes reckless driving. At the very least that means an appearance before a judge, stiff fines, and a painful financial reckoning with the insurance mafia.
Again, the driver doesn’t have to have actually engaged in reckless or dangerous behavior, they need only exceed the posted limit by an arbitrary number. If the posted speed limit is 55, a person safely driving 76 could be charged with reckless driving. Remember, we’re not talking about darting in and out of traffic while shooting holes in road signs; only driving at slightly faster than the average flow of traffic.
Those who doubt the revenue enhancement angle of traffic enforcement should spend a few hours observing the courts that deal with traffic infractions. The size of the fines and the sheer amount of “customers” herded through on a daily basis is staggering. Few people will challenge a ticket since these courts are set up to be a collection point. But do all those fines really make us safer?
Contrary to what we may have been told, the percentage of accidents caused by speeding is actually quite low.
Traffic engineers have long maintained that speed limits should be set at or under the speed driven by at least 85 percent of drivers in free flowing traffic. Realistic speed limits would allow police to clearly distinguish between those who are driving dangerously and the reasonable majority.
The surprising truth is that slower isn’t always safer. By the same token, raising speed limits to a reasonable level doesn’t mean that motorists will simply drive faster.
The Utah Department of Transportation found that raising the speed limit to 80 mph on certain stretches of I-15 did not result in more crashes or more speeding. In fact, they found that the number of drivers exceeding the speed limit actually dropped by 20 percent.
Safe and courteous driving are commendable goals, but too many traffic laws have become a means to access your pocketbook.
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Bryan Hyde is a news commentator and co-host of the Perspectives talk show on Fox News 1450 AM 93.1 FM. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
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