Why we speed

  • Article by: DAVID BANKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 7, 2012 - 5:38 PM

In addition to the reality that not all drivers are alike, there can be, paradoxically, a pursuit of safety.

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It was a day of blue skies and dry pavement in the middle of winter. As I merged onto the freeway, my path was exceedingly clear to the far-left lane I'd need to occupy before my exit a few miles later.

In heavier traffic, it would have been a multistep maneuver. On the empty road, I moved there exuberantly. I should've known it was too good to be true.

Soon after, a blocky car materialized in my mirror, riding up close. No lights, but I didn't need them to know.

Ten minutes later, I was holding one of the ... well, several speeding tickets I've received in my driving days.

At this point, you might think that you're about to read a tale of remorse, in which a petty criminal realizes the error of his ways. This is not that story.

You might think, then, that you've been lured into an article by a petulant ass with an undue sense of entitlement. (You might think this especially following a recent report in this newspaper revealing that having the means to pay a heftier fine keeps citations off some drivers' records.)

But this is not that story, either -- at least not intentionally.

Though traffic fatalities in the United States have been in decline -- for several reasons, even as speed limits have climbed -- the many thousands of deaths that still occur each year, each a deeply felt tragedy, do not make any defense of speeding a sympathetic case. So why do I do it?

To some people, the law is the law. Yet traffic laws in particular are widely fudged. (A law enforcement officer looking to exercise the U.S. Supreme Court's newly affirmed right to strip-search suspects at booking might find an ample feeder system on the freeways.) So why do we do it?

Flow.

There's nothing morally magical about our speed limits. They rest in a theoretical sweet spot among safety and fuel efficiency and the desire to move from point A to point B.

If they were lower than they are currently, certainly we could save more fuel and face less risk. Not driving at all would be incredibly effective.

But it's not realistic. So drivers find their sweet spots. Everyone's is different. Everyone moves at different speeds. This is true in all facets of life, from walking to working. Flow.

The essential purpose of limits is to keep these discrepancies from becoming chaos, to give the multitudes a sense of what to expect.

If traffic achieved an easy flow at a uniform speed, then adhering to a limit alone would be enough for drivers to meet their ethical obligation of safety to others. Instead, their varying senses of "fast" and "slow" inevitably lead them to accumulate in what I like to describe within a seven-letter limit as a cluster.

Within these clusters, speeds wobble and automobiles sway. Within these clusters, the near future is most unpredictable.

Most of the tickets I've received have been granted to me in basically similar situations, in which I was driving 10 to 15 miles per hour over the limit, having found a sense of safety with some space around me, and having settled into a speed that preserved that cushion while seeming neither artificially constrained nor risky for my car and the conditions.

I've never resisted those tickets. In each case, by the letter of the law, I was guilty. I understand that if there's going to be a structure, there has to be enough enforcement to preserve it.

And as a driver, I've been fortunate to have had a decent literal safety record. The most memorable incidents have come when I've been slow (getting sucked into the ditch while plodding along a muddy country road) or stopped (getting rear-ended while queued to turn).

In those cases, the culprit was inattention on my part or another's. Inattention -- to one's surroundings and abilities, in the moment -- is, in fact, the underlying factor in any crash.

While we address inattentive driving in our laws, we don't most commonly enforce it. We allocate it into rules that encumber flow.

I'm not saying that we shouldn't. While flow is an underappreciated factor in traffic safety, it too can lead to complacency.

To lose one's life or livelihood -- or worse, to have caused that loss for someone else -- carries more weight than any momentary burden could.

Nature tells us that we won't always follow the rules, and that sometimes it's better if we don't. Keep them in mind, all the same.

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David Banks is the Star Tribune's assistant commentary editor.

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