Oct 062011

You'll soon be able to drive a little faster on Britain's motorways; we should be allowed to here in the US too

In the UK, some good news.  For some time now the UK has been a curious contradiction between a 70 mph speed limit on its freeways (motorways) and the actual speeds drivers travel at – usually 80 mph, sometimes appreciably in excess of 90 mph.  The police have a general policy of not stopping cars going slower than 77 mph.  Britain’s 70 mph limit is one of the lowest speed limits in the EU; famously Germany has its ‘no speed limit’ during daylight hours on some stretches of autobahn; France and the Netherlands both have 130 kph (81 mph) speed limits.

The British 70 mph speed limit was set back in 1965 – 45 years ago.  That was a time when most ordinary cars could barely reach 70 mph.  Poor road handling and bad tires made cars dangerously unstable.  Poor car design and few seatbelts also made crashes at even moderate speeds very dangerous.

Flash forward to today.  Notwithstanding an explosion of traffic in the last 45 years (I’ll guess and say somewhere between three and four times as much traffic as in 1965) road fatalities have dropped four-fold.  Cars today are incredibly safer than they were then.

At last, Britain has announced an intention to increase its speed limit up to 80 mph, although it will do this incredibly slowly.  The new limit will be introduced at some as yet unknown time next year.

Speeding Saves Lives – True !

One comment about the oft cited statement ‘speed kills’.  While there can be no denying that an accident at high speed is much more dangerous than an accident at lower speed, there are two things to keep in mind.

The first is that the claims of what percentage of accidents are caused by excessive speed need to be taken with a grain of salt.  When your world-weary state trooper is investigating yet another gruesome car accident, with vehicles mangled beyond recognition and dead bodies all around, what is the easiest thing to do on the accident report form when it comes to selecting a response for ‘Cause of Accident’?  Check the ‘excessive speed’ box, right?

Claiming excessive speed as a cause of a fatal accident is a bit like claiming ‘he stopped breathing’ as a cause for a less violent death.  The state trooper may have no way of knowing that the driver had dropped something down the side of the seat and was reaching over to reclaim it when he inadvertently swerved off the road – for sure, if he was only driving at 5 mph instead of 50 mph, it would have been survivable, but is that really an ‘excessive speed’ root cause?

The second thing to keep in mind is that driving slowly kills, too – and may in fact kill more people than driving more quickly.  Let me explain.

Think of how many hours we all spend in our cars each year.  The average person in the US drives about 12,000 miles a year.  Let’s say they average 30 mph – that is 400 hours a year (8 hours a week).  Actually, that number is probably a bit on the low side, but let’s run with it for this calculation.

So we have 300 million people, each spending 400 hours a year in their cars.  In total, that is 13.7 million years.  Sure, some people don’t drive, but all of us spend time as passengers as well as driving, so let’s run with this number too.

Now, think about this.  If we could drive 10% faster, that would reduce the time spent in cars by 1.37 million years across the country, per calendar year.  Or, if you prefer, if we all drove 10% slower, that would increase the time spent by 1.37 million years.

If an average person lives about 70 years, that 1.37 million years represents 19,600 entire lifetimes either wasted or saved, every year, just by driving slightly faster or slower.  And to put that into context, for the most recent year I’ve been able to get figures for (2009) there were about 34,000 traffic fatalities from all causes, ranging from rocks falling on vehicles to bridges collapsing, as well as speed and other road safety issues.  Almost one third of accidents involve alcohol.  The rate of traffic fatalities, particularly in terms of miles driven, has been steadily falling and probably was less in 2010 and will be less again this year (2011).

So do you really think that a 10% increase in speed limits would cause the number of speed related deaths to double?  Almost certainly, not, which means the saving of lives lost due to spending more time driving would more than balance whatever number of extra fatalities may have occurred.

Or, to flip it the other way, would a 10% reduction in speed limits completely zero out speed related deaths?  Of course not, which means the lives lost due to driving unnecessarily slowly would be greater than the lives saved by reducing speed limits.

We should increase the speed limits in the US, too.  With now most of Europe driving at 80 mph, why should we limit ourselves to somewhere between 60 – 70 mph in most states?

Some Bad News Too

Be very very careful if you’re driving in Washington DC.  This article reports how the nation’s capital’s finest have taken to throwing drivers in jail if they are caught driving a vehicle with expired tabs.

As the article sort of alludes to, the cost of putting a person in jail for even only a day or two is enormous.  Why is Washington wasting money and making criminals out of driver who simply forgot to renew their tabs (an offense that I’m a repeat offender at myself, but for which I’ve happily never been thrown in jail for – at least, not yet!).

Washington has crack dealers on too many street corners, but the city’s police prefer to throw Mr & Mrs Middleclass in jail for the non-crime of having slightly expired tabs on their car.

What is wrong with them and their priorities?

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