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The speed limits in this country are a joke.

Take for instance the 210, the main freeeway that serves the Pasadena area. Like most freeways, it is wide, well-maintained and has no sharp curves. The posted speed limit is 65 miles an hour.

On the 210 – for that matter on virtually every freeway I have taken – it is completely safe to drive about 15 miles faster than the posted limit. People realise this and they speed. Even the cops have stopped caring. They rarely pull over someone who is doing less than 80. Makes me wonder why we play out this charade.

I was driving down from the bay area on Sunday along the 5 freeway, and everyone was doing 90, myself included. The speed limit on the 5 is 70. This kind of thing happens all the time in California. People know that a speed limit of 65 means you can usually go at 80 without getting a speeding ticket, a speed limit of 70 means 85. Unfortunately this is not true in some other states (where the cops have nothing to do and are bored). Last summer I and a couple of buddies drove across the country, all the way to Michigan. We also earned three expensive tickets on the way.

I am not advocating that all speed-limits be eliminated. They are necessary in the cities. As for freeways, I think the posted speeds should be raised by about 10 miles an hour for freeway stretches that pass through cities, and done away with for the rest. Speeding does not cause accidents, reckless or bad driving does. A person in a car with good tires driving at 100 miles on an empty freeway is safer than one who is cutting lanes at 40 when everyone around him is doing 70. Besides, it is abundantly clear that unrealistic speed limits do not ensure compliance. They only lead to people keeping an eye out for highway patrols when they should be watching the road.

Arbitrary and unrealistically low speed limits have created a socially acceptable disdain for them. Today most people drive significantly faster than the law allows them to. More pertinently, the converse statement is also true. Most people only drive as fast as they feel safe in doing. They would not go faster than is safe even if they were allowed to. There was a study a few years ago that monitored average speeds on a road where the speed limit used to be 50. Then they raised it to 60 and they observed the speeds again. The average speed only went up by .5 miles. For a much more detailed study that comes to similar conclusions, click here.

Ultimately, the speed at which one ought to drive (like most other things in life) is best left to the judgement of the individual. The Germans realised this long ago, so there are no blanket speed limits on the Autobahn. That does not lead to more accidents in Germany than in neighbouring countries like France, which do have speed limits. Unfortunately in the US – Montana had to abandon its no-speed-limit policy under federal pressure – things seem to be moving in the opposite direction.

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On a related note, Alex Roy and his co-driver recently broke the unofficial transcontinental driving record, racing from New York City to the Santa Monica Pier in 31 hours. While I am not endorsing his deed, it does give me some perverse pleasure to read about it. There will always be people who like to drive really fast and are good enough to do so safely. And some of them will not be thwarted by speed limits.

Update: For those interested, here is a more extensive report of Alex Roy’s feat.

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