Bad logic: speed limits

Opposition to speed limits divides an audience. Most immediately shut down to anything you have to say and call you crazy, and the others listen because they’re annoyed with speed limits but are still very skeptical.

speed_limitsAfter all, speed limits are one of those things like food label warnings, fire exits, and health insurance that might save our lives. And because we want our lives to be saved, we want to make an absolute rule that all lives get saved the same way. Fear creates absolutes.

This is a type of broken reasoning where humans are both cause and effect of all that happens in their world. The ultimate goal, or effect, is to preserve ourselves. So we create rules to preserve all people as that guarantees us both preservation and the approval of others.

However, we’re unable to think beyond that moment to the effect of preserving everyone from themselves, and we’re also unable to think before that moment to the reason that different categories of activity — say, driving fast — have different results for different people. Some people are better drivers.

Looking past this confusion of cause, effect and self, we can see that speed limits have a number of problems:

  • Preservation of idiots. Preserve idiots, and when they breed, you have more idiots.
  • Trains us to break the law. If we’re able to drive competently, we can handle speeds above the average. This means you have smart people growing up learning that the law is for idiots, and needs to be broken, and cops need to be treated as an enemy or predator.
  • Defines bad driving. We create a partial definition of bad driving by limiting our perception to quantitative, observable, legalistic reasoning like “he drove too fast” or “she went through a red light.” The only way you really know if someone is a bad driver is by observing them driving over a series of challenges.
  • Doesn’t stop bad drivers. By making speeding a primary issue, you train law enforcement to stop speeders — not be wary of bad drivers, which is the larger problem.

At the very least, this is a fun thought experiment in which we can indulge: do speed limits achieve their goal? If not, what does? In considering our solutions, what prior and posterior factors are we missing — maybe that busting speeders causes problems, and considering “speeders = bad drivers” as an implicit equation warps our thinking?

And if you get through all that: in what others areas is this type of bad cause/effect reasoning applied, and maybe, how we can liberate ourselves from it.


  1. Crewick says:

    Let’s consider.

    Suppose you are a good driver, and you are driving very fast in a densely populated area. Someone dashes out onto the road (misjudging how fast your car is moving), and suddenly you are in a predicament you barely have time to notice. In such a situation, would your driving skill matter terribly? Would a man with an IQ of 200 be able to fly over the pedestrian? Or swerve smoothly through a roadside house as if it were mist? Would the world stop turning if you couldn’t speed in towns?

    My point is that certain areas need speed limits, namely towns and cities; places with regular pedestrian traffic. Excluding those in-city highway things you americans have, and outlying roads. The ideal solution would be more difficult driving tests to weed out the bad drivers (unless you oppose those too on grounds of them preventing natural selection), but what could you do about the ones that lack common sense or prescience, if not impose at least some speeding limits?

    1. DaveA says:

      A good driver would not be driving fast in a densely populated area.

  2. Someone who is a good driver knows when to drive faster. If they’re hauling ass through a confined area, they’re either in an emergency or being reckless. I think any officer or citizen witnessing such behavior could call it in and request law enforcement on the grounds of “reckless driving.” As you point out, we also need more realistic and more difficult driving tests!

    1. ultrasickmegaueberscum says:

      It good also be seen the other way: Accidents are caused by people driving to slow and/or changing the sides without looking or misjudging the speed of the upcoming car.

      Parallelism also works regarding highways, creating some with a road made for slower and some for more faster cars.
      but as this would cause more trees to fall prey to ugly highways, this is a lousy idea…

      1. ultrasickmegaueberscum says:

        i meant “could”, not “good”…

  3. Retmash says:

    One thing I don’t seem to understand. Actually, I’m pretty sure most of the people are bad drivers, or at least not good drivers. How can you expect the police to arrest everyone for reckless driving? On what criteria? If there is no explicit rule, will you have to call upon a judge to decide, or will the officer be the only judge, in which case the judgement will vary depending on the officer ( with all the possible excesses involved )? That seems pretty unrealistic to me.
    And what happens to the good drivers? The roads would most likely be unsafe if they are filled with idiots behind wheels, and even reasonable persons would be killed in this situation.
    This would indeed begin by exterminating the morons incapable of restraint, but during this time, I would prefer to barricade myself at home, waiting for them to either learn or die, time during which I wouldn’t go to work.
    What really bugs me with what you just said is that it might well create a judicial mess.

    But this solution may work, since people would have to adapt to it ( if they don’t, death will come for them ). It will “just” cost a certain amount of human life and time. In this case, why not extend this to all the rules of the road? Some italian cities are functioning that way, and it works quite well. ( And I’m sure there are more examples like this ).
    However I wouldn’t vouch for the traffic efficiency.

    As for more difficult driving tests : I actually live in France, where the driving licence is quite hard to pass. But once the people have it, most of them just think : “Woot! Now I can drive how I want!”. Consequences : people in France may be better drivers, but in the end they all drive badly, since what they lack is education, or carefullness. To put it bluntly : they are retarded/unreasonable.

    My take on this : it might not be a bad idea, but will hardly function in the actual society ( at least if we changed only this, and not more deeply. ).

  4. I'm gay says:

    Sometimes the logic in this article makes sense. For instance: homelessness = bad – let’s invent the welfare state to take care of the homeless. Not so for speeding. Behind the wheel of the car, the reckless person is not just responsible for his own life, but the lives of others.

    Idiots drive fast and kill people who are not necessarily idiots. Smart people realise this and so support speed limits to stop themselves getting killed by idiots. Based on fair play, smart people obey speed limits, also recognising the strong correlation between speed and their own chance of causing an accident upon something unforeseen occurring.

    Idiot driving can be discouraged by… stopping idiots driving. This probably requires stronger local police presence.

  5. ClydeB says:

    Virtually every difficult driving situation has a “natural” appropriate speed. I’m willing to wager that in such a situation where I first do the driving and then monitor the indicated speed, I’m either at or below the posted limit. To me, this validates the rational behind the posted limit as well as my inate capacity to adjust to the situation in an appropriate manner. To then carry the arguement forward to a situation where I may be exceeding the posted limit, I can confidently, even if not effectively financially, argue that mine is the appropriate speed.

  6. susan28 says:

    ■Trains us to break the law. If we’re able to drive competently, we can handle speeds above the average. This means you have smart people growing up learning that the law is for idiots, and needs to be broken, and cops need to be treated as an enemy or predator.

    thank you.. drug laws have the same effect, all the least-common-denominator stuff does.

    1. cedrick says:

      How about variable speed limits?
      On a 5-lane highway I don’t see the need for the people in the fast lane to have to go slow like the people in the slow lane. How about different speed limits for different lanes and different speed limits depending on congestion? How about getting lighted signs that change depending on current conditions?

      1. Mr. Briggs says:

        The only problem with the different speeds per lane (and by that I mean the ONLY problem) is that it’s too complicated.

        Imagine having to drive at 65 MPH and suddenly shift to 55 MPH when you change lanes. It’s kind of hard to remember what speed you need to be going at, and that might lead to more accidents. (Okay, so complicatedness isn’t the only problem, but the danger arrives from the complexity of the system. I think we’re a few sticks of straw away from breaking the donkey’s back.)

        The lighted signs idea is good, I’ll give you that. The range would be extremely wide as well… so in excellent conditions with minimal congestion, the speed limit might be as high as 75 MPH, but during high congestion or bad weather, it might go as low as 25 MPH.

        1. anna says:

          I disagree that they’re too complicated. It’s simple: people who want to go slower drive in the right lanes, people who want to go fast drive in the left lanes. What I think is complicated is the different top speed limits everywhere you go. Let’s say you make that two-day long trek from Denver to Chicago. There are parts in Nebraska where you switch from 55 to 75 to 65 to 75 and so on for about an hour and a half.

  7. Mr Fnortner says:

    The major flaw in most of the responses to Mr. Steven’s simple little argument here is that removing the speed limit will result in an increase in “speeding.” Most people already speed almost all the time that traffic will allow: 34 in a 30 zone for a quarter mile here; 48 in a 45 for half a mile there; 63 in a 55 for three miles back there, and the next thing you know you’re home and you’re a criminal. What he’s asking for is a little rationality. Remove the political speed limits, and replace them with driver-based good judgment, and you might be amazed at how well the system would work. Most people do not drive in self-destructive, or even in other-destructive, ways. And most people, once the initial shock wears off, would not give the lack of speed limits a second thought. If the political speed limits were replaced with engineering-based maximums for road conditions and terrain–rather like the yellow speed limit signs we already have–then we might have a really workable speed limit system. Under this system, we might be able to say that neighborhood stopping distances must not exceed, say, 150 feet, including reaction time. Therefore, given the sight lines in this neighborhood, and the average expected stopping distance of the typical sedan, the maximum safe speed is 45MPH. This may undoubtedly be higher than the 25MPH posted by the county based on political reasoning, but it would be reasonable, and may be a speed that many people wouldn’t reach based on their prudence and judgment. Such a system would allow most of us to go on about our business without being closet scofflaws. And the police could concentrate on the job of protecting and serving, which I am certain they really want to do.

  8. E.Edwin says:

    Written by someone so bitter about the speeding ticket he got that he just can’t stand it.

    1. P.Atmgroin says:

      nice contribution. Your argument was well thought out and it shows that you genuinely considered all of the main points of his article and carefully carved an argument against it. I applaud you sir. Well played.

  9. Clive McCool says:

    I have a problem with the argument that the speed limit doesn’t stop bad drivers. Yes, it is true that speed limits in themselves do not stop people from driving poorly. However, it is also true that speeding is a class C misdemeanor, but reckless driving is (at least in my area) a class B misdemeanor; in other words, you will only receive a ticket for speeding, whereas you will be arrested for driving recklessly. A speed limit is a law that can be seen from the street to regulate the speed in a particular area. For instance, the speed limit will obviously be lower in a residential area where there may be more people, perhaps children who might dash out into the street, and it will be higher on a highway where you will not expect many pedestrians to be about. Without speed limits, one could in theory make reasonable decisions to regulate his or her own speed in relation to the surrounding area, but if there were no laws in place, someone with poor judgment skills or no regard for others’ safety could go 70 in a residential area, hit a pedestrian, and claim that he was not at fault because there was no law stating he couldn’t go that speed. Traffic laws are intended for the protection of all people, including the ones that are required to follow those laws, and the laws against reckless driving are, or should be, enforced just as the laws against speeding are. And even if we need to have signs that say “Do Not Drive Recklessly — Strictly Enforced”, the only people I will be disappointed in will be the ones who acted so irresponsibly as to give the authorities a need to place those signs there to protect our safety.

  10. clyph says:

    Speed limit laws are not about public safety. They’re about money and power, period.

    The fact of the matter is that there is a substantial body of scientific evidence that demonstrates that artificially low speed limits actually make the roads LESS safe than allowing traffic to flow at it’s natural rate.

    If you’ve been suckered into believing the propaganda that says otherwise, I feel sorry for you.

  11. MS says:

    When I think of speed limits, I think of interstate speeds in Texas. The daytime speed limit is set at 80mph, pretty great considering that the majority of I-10 is long, flat, empty highway. At night however, they really get you. The speed limit drops down to 65 for no apparent reason, until you realize that there are state troopers parked in the median every 5 miles or so. They specifically target people from out of state who don’t have the means, time, or resources to travel back to some small podunk county seat in the middle of Texas to argue against their ticket, which would probably be dismissed. The court fees are over $100 (Insane, since you don’t have to even go to court) and the fine is extreme. This is purely for generation of revenue and no other reason. The road didn’t magically get more dangerous, and there is less traffic then ever before. People from in state are able to get the fine and record expunged for a small $75 fee, and a short driving class.

    When I got my ticket for driving in Texas, I was doing 72 in a 65, pretty reasonable for a flat, clean, well maintained interstate with no traffic at 2am. I wasn’t weaving or otherwise disobeying the law. A state trooper comes flying out of the median, lights blazing, nearly hits me, blinds me, scares the crap out of me and almost causes a wreck. Then proceeds to be an absolute jackass, threatening to take me to jail (For 7mph over) despite my extreme compliance and friendliness. He then proceeds to write me a ticket for 88 in a 65. The county court, the state police, and internal affairs all gave me the same answer. “Not our problem.”

    My one piece of evidence? I drive a 1992, beat up, run down jeep cherokee with overheating problems. I can’t even do 80 without the engine overheating. It was physically impossible for my car to run that fast, and I wouldn’t have let it anyway…I’m not stupid.

  12. Solaria says:

    The problem isn’t so much driving too fast: the problem is the difference in speed between cars. When some of the traffic is driving 45 while the rest of the traffic is doing 70, there’s a safety hazard, whether the speed limit is 45 or 70.

    There shouldn’t be “speed limits”, there should only be “speeds”. The requirement should be that you travel at the posted “speed”, plus-or-minus 5.

  13. Mr Fnortner says:

    I’m also enjoying the theme running through these speed limit arguments that they’re for the other driver, not “me.” No one has said, “Thank God I have the speed limit to keep me under control and safe!” But everybody wants one for the other folks out there who can’t manage themselves as well as we do.

    My main point is that all drivers exceed the speed limit all the time anyway. That’s not an exaggeration. If “Speed Kills!” for example, we’d all be dead. I suggest we decriminalize this activity, and bring more rational behavior to our streets and highways. And E. Edwin, if you are referring to me with your bitter speeding ticket comment, my last ticket was about 20 years ago, in a moment of inattention. I deserved the ticket and paid my fine.

  14. KC says:

    I have never received any type of ticket or been involved in any accident in my 7 years of having a drivers license and I agree that the current speed limits are set much too low. However, the reason for this has almost become a catch 22 that is ingrained in our society. People think that speed limits are made to be broken because they are too low, if we raise the speed limit to a reasonable speed (in my experience about 10 mph higher is reasonable), people would continue to speed.

    A total abandonment of speed limits is also not acceptable, because then it leaves it entirely up to the judgment call of civil servants that I don’t believe are all that competent to begin with. If you think the cops are assholes now where they have guidelines as to what defines a reckless driver, just wait until its entirely their discretion.

  15. Joe says:

    You have a good point about bad drivers. There needs to be improvement @ the federal level for this… We need harder tests that make people understand that driving is a privileged. Something in the way of a pilots license.

    The rest of your post about the speed limit is pretty much idiotic IMHO. Speed kills and (typically) young people don’t learn until A. they witness a terrible accident or B. they mature and realize that vehicles are like riding in tin cans that kill _very_ easily @ high speeds. Ask an experienced biker what he/she thinks about speed. They will tell you that ‘speed kills’, and it’s true!~

  16. Mr Fnortner says:

    Here’s another thought. Because our traffic laws are an outgrowth of the fear of automobiles in an age of horses and buggies, and because collisions are considered mistakes rather than deliberate acts, perhaps now after more than a hundred years it’s time to rethink these two bases.

    I propose two new principles: One, no traffic law should define as an offense conduct that does not directly cause property damage or personal injury (other than regulatory items such as right of way and lane usage standards). This would serve to eliminate all fear-based offenses such as reckless driving, speeding, drunk driving, driving too fast for conditions, and so forth.

    Two, collisions should be considered the criminal responsibility of the driver. This would shift the burden of accountability from the tort system to the criminal justice system, no longer allowing collisions to be “accidents” that just happened, but designating them as acts under the lawful accountability of the driver. We could have battery by automobile, vandalism by automobile, homicide by automobile, and the like as a result of collisions. Drivers would be cited by law enforcement personnel on the scene based on their investigations. No more “following too close” tickets for $125, but criminal charges for vandalism and battery.

    For those reading this who think that no reckless driving or drunk driving laws would create a wild West environment on our roads, consider the second part of my proposal where the resulting collision results in criminal penalties including jail time. If we establish true accountability for reckless behavior: you break my car or hurt me, you go to jail–then people will begin to drive with more care. I believe insurance costs and insurance premiums would go down also.

    Today we just threaten, scold, and fine people for behaviors that are only obliquely related to the problems we want to eliminate: property damage, personal injury, and death. By penalizing those three things, directly and harshly, we can gain control over them. If you haven’t noticed, the highway death toll has remained over 40,000 per year for decades in spite of safety measures and equipment, police enforcement practices, new laws and higher fines, MADD campaigns, insurance rate increases, and all manner of good intentions. It’s time we did something different, and I believe this is it.

  17. John says:

    Many people say the speed limits are too low, but how do they know? By saying that, they’re saying that they know more about it than whoever sets them. Maybe they do, but a lot of people are bad drivers, and don’t. Saying you aren’t a bad driver is arrogant. Many people are terrible drivers but almost everyone thinks they are better than average. Drivers are known to act irrationally, if they didn’t, they wouldn’t tailgate, and can’ be trusted to decide on a sensible speed in each situation. We need o make the penalties for speeding higher, so ha people just can’t afford to do i.

  18. Sangster says:

    Personally, when I see a speed limit sign it acts as a rating scale of the difficulty of the road. If I have never driven on a particular road before and see that the speed limit is 55, I know there aren’t gonna be any sudden hairpin turns. So I can speed. But if the speed limit is 15, it tells me that the road may be

  19. dalekaup says:

    Heavier vehicles should have lower speed limits. They are more prone to lose control, take longer to stop and consume a disproportionate amount of fuel. Our consumption and production of fuel is fairly finely balanced with a demand exceeding supply by less than 10%. If we could bring demand in line with supply by reducing consumption gas and diesel would be cheaper for everyone.

    Going from 12 MPG to 15.7 saves more gallons of fuel than going from 50 MPG to 1000 MPG over the same distance. Do the math.

    MPG and CAFE standards are frauds perpetuating over consumption and leading to too-small cars being built to justify Expeditions and Suburbans. This only leads to the perception that saving gas is dangerous since clearly a Geo Metro will not survive a crash with a Expedition. However if more people drove middle-of-the-road cars (bad imagery I know) such as Malibus, Maximas and Tauruses or even RAV4′s, Caravans and Sorento’s and the like we’d all be buying gas for $1.25 and safe as well.

  20. Frank says:

    The problem in your reasoning is simple… Psychology.

    The vast majority of drivers think they are “better than average” drivers. The people you see driving like complete idiots, barely avoiding accidents? They think they are good drivers. They might even think they are great drivers.

    So, the only way to truly set speedlimits would be to have widescale proficiency tests where every driver every few years is tested for their skill in driving and then got a personal speedlimit…. which I think would be rather amazingly expensive, not to mention most people would still blow it off thinking they were a bit off that day or that the test is flawed.

    As much as I like the idea of no speedrestrictions, it is just never going to happen. I’d suggest you aim your thinkingcap in the direction of solving the problems you mentioned instead… It makes lawbreakers out of us? Why? Because we speed? Right, so find a way to make us stop speeding.

    I say stopping speeding is fairly simple, just build cars unable to speed. A drive by wire system (Electronic control rather than direct) can easily be built to limit the top speed to certain limits. Rather than to set these limits arbitrarily high, like car companies tend to, just set them at freeway speeds. You’re not legally allowed to go faster, so problem solved.

    Put a hefty fine or loss of license on removing the block on a stree-legal car outside of set racing areas. In races professionals can stand by to remove and then reinstate the block. Side benefits? Adjustable top speeds… set a transmitter in the city limit signs, and any car passing by the signs suddenly cant go at freeway speeds anymore. Emergency vehicles need to pass? Zap, all cars infront of them suddenly slow down, providing plenty of incentive to get out of the way so they can get back to their regular speeds.

    But of course, human psychology… again not a possibility. While it would be the logical thing to do, we as a race do not enjoy having our lawbreaking capabilities taken away from us.

  21. josh says:

    it’s a nice argument, but you ignore crucial details. current speed limits are rarely set out of safety’s concern, but out of consideration for monetary efficiency. the yellow suggested speed limits around turns and the like are exactly what you describe – a reasonable “hey you might wanna slow down up here.”

    but the posting of, say, a 60 or 70mph speed limit is because that’s the range where most standard motors achieve the greatest mpg. nationalized speed limits achieved their widest distribution decades ago when gas was actually scarce in the US, and people would literally wait in line for hours at the gas station. not because there were so many people, but because gas was so scarce. ask your parents if you don’t already know.

    considering that gasoline availability is dependent on active pursuit by american public policy, it is reasonable that its use be mandated to some degree of efficiency. the failing is found, as mentioned, in SUV’s and the like, but in time i imagine that problem will be addressed.

    note: i drive fast, and am not a fan of speed limits, but their presence is legitimate.

  22. Ed says:

    The speed limits are specifically designed to increase profits of insurance companies. Less catastrophic accidents mean lower payouts, lower payouts mean greater profits.

  23. MikeG says:

    All these years of regulation have got us where? How about removing signs and driving guides that people rely on which will then force people to be more aware and use their brain. Because there are no cues on how fast you can go people end up driving slower.

    Some European cities have done this with excellent results.

  24. ABetterLogic says:

    “Preservation of idiots. Preserve idiots, and when they breed, you have more idiots.”

    Oh, I’m sorry, didn’t realize Hitler was back from the dead. That’s right, and it’s not even a false analogy! Whopee!

    “Some people are better drivers.”

    By construction, regardless of how good a driver you are, there is some speed at which when an unexpected event occurs – such as someone stepping out into the road, or a car cutting into your lane – your reaction time will be strictly larger than the amount of time required to adequately respond to the threat. This speed is in general defined on a case by case basis, again by construction. In fact if you can predict this speed in all cases, I submit that you should get a Fields medal, because by golly you are modest. “inconceivably intelligent” is more like it than “smart”. And good luck finding others like you.

    I’m sorry, but your reasoning is broken – as you say – in so many ways that I am a loss.

    Of course, it should go without saying that I speak only to first order.

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