Jeff Clemens: What’s the purpose of speeding tickets on interstates?

Across the state, libertarians rage against red-light traffic cameras.

The claims are many: there is conflicting evidence about whether they make intersections safer; the only purpose is to make money for cash-strapped local governments; they’re unconstitutional.

I understand the arguments. What I don’t understand is why they choose this issue, as opposed to a much more egregious moving violation that has little, if any effect, on the safety of our road system – speeding tickets on interstate highways.

Speeding tickets on roads specifically designed for high-speed travel do what, exactly?

There is evidence that red-light traffic cameras result in fewer violations and fewer serious crashes. And I will admit there is conflicting evidence that states this is not true. But at least there is data and a debate.

I have yet to find data that says driving 70 mph is any safer than driving 80 mph.

And yet, state and local governments pull in hundreds of millions of dollars in speeding tickets every year, far more than red-light camera tickets generate.

Disclosure: I, like most Americans, have received speeding tickets. About 41 million are issued every year, which is about 112,000 each day. It’s quite common. I’ve also received a red-light camera ticket, and it upsets me to this day that I could have potentially caused an accident.

I’ve been in only one accident in my 16-plus years of living in Florida. I was moving 5 miles per hour. The damage didn’t even meet my deductible. But my insurance rates went up.

Which leads us to the question: what is the real reason we’ve focused so intently on punishing speeding, especially on highways that are designed for high-speed travel?

Because auto insurance companies rake in untold amounts of money (some estimates are in the billions) every year by raising rates on people who have not cost those companies a dime. Every time you get nipped for a speeding ticket, or a series of other moving violations, insurance companies jack your rates up.

Why is that? You haven’t required them to pay anything. And there is no evidence that someone who drives 80 mph on a high-speed road is any more dangerous than someone who drives 70 mph. Certainly someone who regularly runs red lights, gets in accidents or drives recklessly could be considered a more dangerous driver than your average motorist.

But a person who speeds on a highway? Hardly.

In both 2010 and 2011, the fatality rate on the German autobahns was two deaths per billion travel kilometers. The autobahns have very few speed restrictions and most cars can travel at whatever speed the driver deems appropriate.

In those same two years, the U.S. National Highway Safety Traffic Safety Administration said the fatality rate in the U.S. was 1.11 and 1.10 deaths per 100 million travel miles. That’s about 6.84 deaths per billion travel kilometers for comparison purposes.

It’s clear that the autobahns of Germany are safer than American highways.

There are several reasons for this. It’s harder to get a driver’s license and harder to keep it Germany. They actually require road tests, which clearly are a much better way of determining the abilities of a driver than a written test.

Also, the Germans respect the left-lane rule. If you are not passing someone, you should not travel in the left lane. This reduces instances of cars weaving in and out of traffic, having to pass cars moving slowly in the left lane. Interestingly, most Germans don’t drive at reckless speeds. A state study found that the average driver goes about 81 mph.

There is one organization that advocates for lower speeds and claims that research proves raising speed limits leads to more deaths — the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Much of the propaganda about the benefits of lower speed limits has come from this organization over the past 30 years. It is funded by insurance companies. And guess which industry uses a few extra points on your license as an excuse to boost your insurance rates?

Still not convinced? Let’s say that you believe highways are safer with a speed limit of 70 mph, as opposed to 80 or 90 mph. Would it not also follow that you think highways are safer at 60 mph or even 50 mph than they are at 70 mph? Of course it would. So if that is the case, why 70?

Many states, including Florida, raised speed limits when the federal speed limit of 55 mph was repealed. And the prognostications then were dire. Ralph Nader went so far as to predict “history will never forgive Congress for this assault on the sanctity of human life.”

And yet, fatalities on U.S. roadways declined from 41,817 in 1995 to 34,080 in 2012. That doesn’t seem like a big drop. But the miles driven increased, meaning the fatality rate per mile has dropped by a third since the national speed limit was abolished.

(As a side note, this reduction in fatalities also occurred during the boom of texting and driving. Just sayin’.)

The Solomon Curve, although somewhat dated, suggests that motorists moving at a slower rate of speed than surrounding traffic are much more likely to be involved in an accident. And yet, very few traffic citations are issued for drivers driving too slowly.

It’s time we end this farce and just raise the speed limit and reduce the number of speeding tickets.

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One comment

  • David McRoy

    September 17, 2013 at 12:06 pm

    The facts speak for themselves. Having driven on the German Autobahn, my impression is that drivers there are better than in America, due to the training they receive as Jeff mentions. The Autobahn is actually less safe than the American Interstate Highway system as “a highway.”. The rural stretches of Autobahn with frei-fahr, where speed is up to the motorist to determine based on conditions (day vs. night, weather, traffic…you can still get a speeding ticket for driving too fast for prevailing conditions) are only two lanes wide in either direction and there are no breakdown lanes: just guardrails which come within only a foot or two of the travel lanes. America should emphasize rigorous driver training and continuing testing and education like Germany. Slightly off-topic: on side streets where there are traffic signals, a 4 second-long yellow light is too short, yet that’s how long they are everywhere I drive here in eastern Palm Beach County.

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