Setting The Right Speed Limit

The other day I was driving on a highway, tooling along on a clear and bright spring day during a non-rush hour period, when I came upon a little traffic snarl.  Road construction?  Rubber-necking past an accident site?  Nope.  It was somebody driving too slow in the passing lane, causing other cars in that lane to pile up behind him as he inched past the car in the slow lane.  Then people started to duck around the line of cars to see if they could pass by on the right.  Suddenly you had another illustration of my long-held view that the real problem on the highways is not your average speeders — that is, the people who routinely drive above the speed limit, as opposed to the drag racers or road ragers — but rather drivers who are driving too slow in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Traffic engineering studies that substantiate this belief.   When traffic engineers review the speed limits on road, they invariably try to set the limit using the “85th percentile” method: that is, finding the number at which 85% of drivers drive at or below the posted speed limit and only 15% exceed it.  Why?  Because while most people drive at what they think is an appropriate speed given the prevailing conditions — a speed that often doesn’t conform to the posted limits — there is a core of people who actually faithfully obey the speed limits.  If the posted speed limits are set too low for the “I’ll drive at an appropriate speed” crowd, you’ve created a situation where there is a significant speed variance between that group and the speed driven by the faithful obeyers.

And that is the point of maximum roadway danger, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, which has concluded that “the potential for being involved in an accident is highest when traveling at speed much lower or much higher than the majority of motorists.”   As the article linked above notes, the 85th percentile approach is the traffic engineers’ method of threading the needle between the approaches of the appropriate speeders and the faithful obeyers:  “Traffic engineers believe that the 85th percentile speed is the ideal speed limit because it leads to the least variability between driving speeds and therefore safer roads. When the speed limit is correctly set at the 85th percentile speed, the minority of drivers that do conscientiously follow speed limits are no longer driving much slower than the speed of traffic.”

But here’s the rub:  setting speed limits to actually match the 85th percentile test would mean raising the speed limits on most American roads, because right now about 50 percent of drivers routinely exceed posted speed limits.  In short, the appropriate speeders are telling the traffic engineers that the posted limits are too low, so to get to the 85 percent figures engineers would need to increase the speed limits.  That move would be applauded by the majority of drivers, but lower speed limits are reflexively supported by safety advocates — and by towns that pad their budgets by issuing speeding tickets on the stretch of roadway that passes through the township limits.  Everybody who lives nearby knows where those speed traps are. but the out-of-towners get tagged with expensive tickets, pay them by mail, and help the town to hit its revenue projections.

Traffic issues are one of the great imponderables in modern society, where the experts say all of their data and experience points in one direction — raising speed limits — but political considerations work in the opposite direction and keep the limits below what most drivers would prefer.  On most roadways, that magic 85th percentile number remains a pipe dream that probably won’t be realized until the human factor is eliminated and we’re all being moved around by self-driving cars.

Allocating Scarce Law Enforcement Resources

On Sunday we drove back to Columbus from Cedar Point.  It was the heart of the Labor Day weekend, traffic was heavy, and the Ohio Highway Patrol was out in force.  We saw more than a dozen OHP cars as we made our way south.  In many instances, the officers were standing outside their cars, aiming their radar guns at oncoming traffic, identifying speeders with a stern finger point, and waving them over to the berm for a ticket.  It was like shooting fish in a barrel.

m-cars-dodge-chargerAs I passed OHP patrol car after patrol car, I found myself wondering:  is this really a good use of our scarce law enforcement dollars?

In America, we’ve got serious crime problems in many of our cities.  The murder rates in places like Chicago are shocking.  Gang violence seems to be on the rise.  In southern Ohio, a heroin epidemic is raging, and overdoses recently spiked as a deadly new form of heroin apparently mixed with an animal tranquilizer hit the streets.

By contrast, the stretch of I-71 between Ashland and the outskirts of Columbus isn’t exactly a hotbed of crime.  There’s speeding, sure . . . but in the grand scheme of things speeding on an interstate highway is a pretty mild offense.  Do we really need to have dozens of well trained, well equipped police officers patrolling a highway and ticketing speeders, or would it be better to have those law enforcement personnel employed to hunt down deadly drug dealers, break up violent gangs, and protect society against murderers?

I’m not saying that American highways should be turned into lawless zones, and we clearly need some form of highway patrol to help stranded motorists, deal with accidents, and catch drunk drivers, reckless lunatics, and road ragers.  But none of the people I saw get ticketed on Sunday fell into that category.  They were just average folks who were moving with the flow of traffic in the passing lane at speeds slightly above the posted limit, and now they’ll find their wallets a few hundred bucks lighter.

Some people contend that modern traffic law enforcement is all about generating those speeding fines and putting the resulting funds into governmental coffers.  I suppose defenders of aggressive traffic speeding enforcement would argue that rules are rules, and a show of force like we saw on Sunday is going to convey the unmistakable message that cops are watching and people need to obey the law.  As somebody who thinks that “broken windows” theory makes sense as a matter of human nature, I can see that . . . but I also think that a more rational allocation of resources should be made.  If you assume that we have a finite amount of law enforcement dollars — and we clearly do — I’d rather see it used to address more egregious and deadly criminal conduct.

The Speeding Calculus

I saw a news story earlier this week in which North Carolina police warned folks in the Tar Heel State that they would be cracking down on speeding.  They’ve launched an “Obey the Sign or Pay the Fine” campaign.  (Apparently the law enforcement folks really, really like law enforcement campaigns that involve simple and annoying rhymes, like the “Click It or Ticket” seatbelt effort.)

an-explosion-of-colorThe point of this North Carolina law enforcement initiative apparently is to disabuse drivers of the notion that there is some sort of safe speed above the posted limit that you can drive without getting pulled over and cited.  The news story linked above says the common belief is that so long as you are going less than 10 m.p.h. over the speed limit, you’re okay.  Nope, says the North Carolina Department of Transportation:  in this new campaign, they’ll be ticketing anyone going even one mile an hour above the posted limit.

One mile an hour?  Yikes!  That’s expecting a lot of precision out of the speedometer in my car.  It doesn’t provide me with a digital readout, after all; it’s just an orange arrow that points in the general direction of a range of numbers and can move abruptly.  And since the numbers on the speedometer occur in increments of 10, there’s not even a “65” for the arrow to point at — 65 is just one of the little lines between 60 and 70.  If I got a ticket for going 66 in a 65 m.p.h. zone on a North Carolina freeway, I wouldn’t be a happy camper.

I’ve never thought there was a 10 m.p.h. buffer zone, anyway.  But I do think there may be another kind of calculus that highway drivers should consider, and that’s the day of the month.  Have you ever noticed that many more patrol cars are on the road at the end of the month?  It always makes me wonder whether there is some kind of monthly quota that highway patrolmen and local police are hoping to meet.  And — purely by coincidence, I’m sure — the North Carolina “Obey the Sign or Pay the Fine” campaign started on March 24.

I’d come up with some kind of clever, poetic reminder of this for the drivers out there, but I can’t think of a word that rhymes with “end of the month.”

Memorial Day Money-Making

Memorial Day is one of the great American holidays.  It’s also widely recognized as one of the biggest driving weekends of the year, as people kick-start their summer with visits to relatives or a long weekend at a beach or lake.

So . . . why do our uniformed friends want to make the weekend painful for patriotic American motorists by looking to hand out speeding tickets by the bushel basket?

On our drive from Columbus to Cleveland on Friday afternoon every conceivable law enforcement representative — from the Ohio Highway Patrol with their spiffy gray muscle cars, to helmeted and booted motorcycle cops, to “County Mounties” and local police officers, seemed to be out on the road, aiming their radar guns at motorists.  It’s weird and unnerving to see a uniformed person pointing a gun-like device your way, and it aggravates an already stressful driving experience.  The roads are clogged as it is, and the immediate braking when a patrolman comes into view just adds to the congestion and the hassle.

Many people theorize that there are speeding ticket quotas each month that officers need to meet to help bring money in to governmental coffers, and therefore you’re more likely to see police stopping speeders and handing out tickets at the end of the month than at the beginning.  I’m not sure about that, but Kish and I saw more police officers out on I-71 on our drive up on Friday and back this morning than we’ve ever seen before.

I recognize that we can’t have people playing Max Max on our highways, but is it really necessary to send every officer of the peace in the Buckeye State out to hand out tickets?  How about letting us celebrate Memorial Day without getting hit with a fine?

Relying On The Naked Eye

Last week the Ohio Supreme Court issued an interesting decision, City of Barberton v. Jenney, that reflects a bit of the clash between human and machine.  An Ohio driver challenged a speeding ticket that he received.  The State relied on the officer’s visual estimation of the driver’s speed, which was that the driver was exceeding 70 mph in a 60 mph zone.  The driver argued that a police officer’s visual estimation, standing alone, is insufficient to sustain a speeding conviction.  The Supreme Court rejected that argument.  It held instead that an officer’s visual estimate is sufficient if the officer is trained, is certified by the Ohio Peace Officer Training Academy or a similar organization, and is experienced in visually estimating vehicle speed.

This decision seems pretty unremarkable to me — except for the fact that the argument that police officers must use radar devices was made in the first place.  In the days before radar guns, of course, police officers had to rely on visual estimates of speed to issue tickets.  The Supreme Court opinion notes that the police officer in the case had received specific speed estimation training, and in order to be certified by the OPOTA he needed to demonstrate that he could visually estimate a vehicle’s speed to within three or four miles per hour of its speed.  Courts also permit lay witnesses to testify about similar matters based on their visual perception.  And, as the Supreme Court noted, the police officer’s credibility always will be subject to challenge.  If the jury concludes, after hearing all of the evidence, that the officer’s testimony is not credible or that the officer’s estimate was unreliable, it can find the defendant not guilty.

The fact that mechanical devices can perform certain functions that humans also have performed does not mean that humans no longer can, or should, do so.