Like tearing off that sticker on mattresses that warns us not to "under penalty of law," most of us don't pay much attention to speed limits. Five to 10 over is the rule, not the exception -- as any survey of average traffic speeds will confirm. We vote with our right foot every time we get behind the wheel, countermanding the diktats of the local bureaucrats who erect limits that are frequently well below what large majorities (better than 85 percent, if you want an actual figure based on traffic surveys) consider reasonable rates of travel.
But what if driving faster than the posted limit became an impossibility?
For years, this has been “The Dream” of safety-badger types, who equate any deviance from often arbitrarily-set posted speed limits with mowing down small children in a gigantic SUV with really loud mufflers, one hand on the wheel, the other clutching a half-empty fifth of Jack Daniels. They pushed for mechanical governors (which never flew) and even managed, briefly, to get a law passed that required all new cars to be fitted with speedometers that read no faster than 85 mph.
Now, however, the technology exists for a great leap forward -- or backward, depending on your point of view.
The Canadians are testing out a system that combines onboard Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) technology with a digital speed limit map. It works very much like the in-car GPS navigation systems which have become so common on late model cars -- but with a twist. Instead of helping you find a destination, the system, prevents you from driving any faster than the posted speed limit of the road you happen to be on.
As in a conventional GPS-equipped car or truck, the system knows which road you're on, as well as the direction you're traveling. This information is continuously updating as you move. But in addition to this, the system also acquires information about the posted speed limit on each road, as you drive. Once your vehicle reaches that limit, the car's computer makes it increasingly difficult to go any faster.
Ten vehicles equipped with this technology are currently being tested in the Ottowa area; if the trail is "successful," a wider series of tests is planned. And it's a sure bet the entire thing will eventually be the object of a very strong-armed push aimed at making it mandatory equipment in every new car. "We are trying to assess the operational acceptance issues," says Peter Burns of Transport Canada's road safety directorate.
But is all of this really necessary -- or even a good idea?
For one thing, if current speed limits are so sensible, why do so many of us disobey them routinely? Are large majorities of us simply indifferent to our own safety and that of others -- even though we seem capable of behaving responsibly in other aspects of our lives?
Or are speed limits often set unrealistically low?
And if they are, wouldn't it make more sense to adjust them so that they reflect a more reasonable consensus -- based upon how we actually drive -- rather than constantly pushing for new ways to compel compliance with limits that most of us clearly think are too low?
Bear in mind that for 20-plus years, we were relentlessly nagged by the self-styled "safety lobby" (and its profiteers in the insurance industry) that to exceed the sainted 55 mph limit was "dangerous speeding" that put ourselves and others at risk. Yet when Congress finally repealed the 55 mph limit in '95 -- and most states raised their highway limits to 65, 70, even 75 mph in some cases -- highway fatality rates did not increase as predicted. In fact, just two years after the majority of states increased their maximum highway speed limits, the total national highway fatality rate reached an all-time record low of 1.64 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT).
This proved that driving 65 or 70-something mph on a highway was not "unsafe." The big difference post-'95 was that you no longer had to worry about getting a ticket for doing it.
The same issue exists on many secondary roads, where under-posted limits are routinely ignored by most drivers -- but vigorously enforced by radar traps. Like the tickets issued to people under the double nickel, the use of radar to nab motorists exceeding these under-posted limits is justified on the basis of "safety" -- even though most of us know that driving five or 10 mph faster doesn't in and of itself constitute unsafe driving any more than doing 65 or 70-something mph did under the old 55 mph NMSL.
And sometimes, it's necessary to accelerate rapidly in order to avoid an accident -- even if it means momentarily exceeding the posted limit.
But Canada's little experiment could bring a screeching halt to all that -- literally. Dumbed-down limits -- and dumbed-down driving -- would become much more than the law of the land.
They would become an inescapable way of life.
Some might welcome a world in which driving faster than whatever the speed limit happens to be is impossibility. But it might be more common-sensical to post realistic speed limits -- and deal with the handful of drivers who won't or can't drive reasonably -- than to treat every driver on the road like the irresponsible one.