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Our belov├ęd Lege is thinking about raising the speed limit on certain roads here in Texas to 85 MPH. The proposal has passed the House, and now goes to the Senate for approval. It’s attracted a little attention nationally, but no huge splash — which makes sense; we already have Interstates out West with 80 MPH as the posted limit.

In a perfect world, posted speed limits would be a stupid regulation from a safety standpoint. The only thing that actually makes sense is maintain a safe and reasonable speed, which takes in all the factors — weather, vehicle and road conditions, and the capabilities of the driver. Posted speed limits encourage idiocies like people driving 60 MPH on an icy road in traffic; when the inevitable crunch occurs, they point at the sign and protest, “Hey, it’s 65 here! I was well under the limit!”

Unfortunately we don’t live in a perfect world. “Safe and reasonable” runs up against the fact that most people have truly lousy judgement of things like momentum, and don’t think much about vehicle maintenance beyond whether or not it starts in the morning; and it leaves the whole mess up to the discretion of individual police officers, which is a great way to get arbitrary oppression institutionalized. Posted speed limits are about the only suitable compromise, but they ought to be set according to reality, which as a rule they are not. I could easily show you several places where Texas “Farm to Market” tertiary roads cross the Interstate; the speed limit on the wide, flat, open, divided, limited-access four-lane is 65, and the sign on the narrow, near-shoulderless, two-lane road infested with farmers pulling hay balers at 10 MPH says 70 in the daytime. That sort of thing encourages people to ignore the limits, because they’re obviously set by people who don’t know what the f* they are doing.

Increasing the speed limit always draws the ire of well-meaning nannystaters, subtly or blatantly encouraged by people with skin in the game, predominately local Justices of the Peace (who see their speeding-fine revenue vanishing) and insurance companies. The insurance companies point out, quite reasonably and truthfully, that higher speeds result in more accidents, and that even if that weren’t true the accidents that do happen will be more severe. Momentum goes by the square of the speed, so a change from 80 to 85 MPH is a 6% increase in speed, but a 13% increase in accident severity — for which they have to pay. The rational answer to that would be to let them price it out; people like me, who drive old cars with minimum insurance coverage, should have to sign in blood that they’d keep the speed down, and people with proper equipment and plenty of money should be able to pay for the privilege of going as fast as they like.

What I propose is an extension of that principle. There’s no particularly good reason to put a speed limit below 65 or 70 MPH on the open Interstate, especially out West where “open” is ironic understatement, but allowing speeds higher than that tends to increase accidents and accident severity because of the “icy road” phenomenon — people who don’t have good cars and/or aren’t good drivers will go that fast anyway, because they don’t have the knowledge and judgement to determine a “safe and reasonable” speed and trust Big Brother to put reasonable numbers on the sign. So set the posted limit relatively low, and introduce a new class of licensing.

Call it the “unlimited permit”, and model it on the concealed carry laws. The vehicle has to pass a real, stringent inspection for things like brakes, tires, steering accuracy, and the like, instead of the present “inspection” system, which amounts to “yup, all four wheels are there, that’ll be $14.50, please.” Cars that make the grade get a special license plate, perhaps with a different-colored background to make it easy for the police to distinguish them from the general ruck, or a distinctive medallion to attach to a standard tag. Drivers have to pass a serious course in how to go fast safely, including skidpad action and familiarity (perhaps using simulators) with how things go at high speeds on the highway. People who pass that course then pay a moderately exorbitant license fee, and get special placards to be displayed fore and aft for the edification of law enforcement, and which they’re required to remove when lesser drivers operate the vehicle. An “unlimited” driver in an “unlimited” vehicle then is subject to the safe and reasonable rule; how fast he or she can go is between him or her and the insurance company. Crucially, drivers with “U” permits would be held to a much higher standard than everybody else. Lapses in judgement like whipping around school buses at eighty or going 60 on an icy road would incur penalties much more severe than for drivers with lower grades of license, ranging from loss of unlimited privileges to jail time, because they’re supposed to know better than that.

People would go for it like coyotes after a deer carcass, especially those whose jobs keep them on the road a lot. From San Antonio to El Paso is over 550 miles of damned near nothing but flat straight road, and takes seven and a half hours under the present limits; cranking it up to 100+ cuts two full hours off that time, and that would be worth a lot to some. It could easily become a modest but significant source of revenue, especially if you extended it to people with out-of-state driver’s licenses. They’d still have to pass the inspection and the course, but could stop in at the Welcome Station, show the paperwork, and pick up their license medallions and placards, thereafter driving fast if they cared to. How much would the testing staff at Car & Driver pay for the privilege of driving Ferraris at full bore without having to deal with annoyed Department of Public Safety troopers? You tell me, but I’ll bet it’s a lot. It would, after all, be deductible as a business expense…

The best effect of that, though, would be better driver education for more people. An unlimited permit would be like catnip to young drivers — at age 20 I would have jumped through some pretty tight and fiery hoops for one — but to get it, they have to pass the course in how to do it safely, including how to decide whether the car they propose to crank up to warp factor 9.2 is suitable for that application. That would be an enormous advance over the present system, in which a 16-year-old demonstrates the ability to keep it between the ditches and is handed a permit to do 80 (or, now, 85) in whatever car they can buy or borrow. It doesn’t take much road experience to realize that literally anything which would encourage people to learn more about driving, cars, and speed would be an improvement over the way we do it now.

Ain’t gonna happen, of course. But a fellow can dream.

Addendum: It occurs to me that requiring a vehicle inspection means the permit isn’t truly unlimited. Call the inspection-required form “S”, for “Speed”; the course for Unlimited includes how to inspect the vehicle for suitability, including accepting the liability incurred thereby. You wouldn’t get many of those, but the ones you did get would be really good drivers.


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When I Posted

April 2011