Are the rules out there for my safety or for the purpose of generating revenue? What is the driving force behind the laws that make us all feel a little like criminals and is there anything we can do to change them?
It’s Saturday, Feb. 11, 2011. I’m driving I-20 from my Pell City home to meet a motorcycle racer I’ve scheduled an interview with at the Bass Pro Shop in Leeds. I’m five minutes away when, up ahead, I see flashing blue lights, lots of them, scattered all over the interstate. Thinking the worst has happened and reaching for my cell phone to let my interviewee know I might be late, I realize it’s not an accident at all, but some sort of sting operation, although today it isn’t drug runners or human traffickers being stopped, it’s speeders.
From my vantage point, there appear to be 8 to 10 police cars, some marked, others unmarked, pulling over families in minivans, SUVs and late-model sedans. Ninety minutes later, they’re still at it, pulling cars over as fast as they can. By my count, as many as 60 to 70 motorists could have been pulled over.
Fast forward one week to Friday, Feb.17. I’m on I-20 heading to my home in Pell City from a long day of work. I remember vividly how it seemed that traffic was moving a little slower than normal that day when, as I crested a slight ridge, I saw a state trooper on the right shoulder of the interstate. Be the time I was even with the patrol car, the blue lights were already on and following me to pull over. My speed? A crazy, unhinged, morbidly dangerous 58 MPH. This is not a misprint. Five-eight.
After spending the rest of the drive home envisioning the various places I’d like to cram his badge and nightstick, I started asking a few questions. For instance, why do otherwise normal, decent, law-abiding citizens continue to put up with this crap year after year? Are the posted speed limits really the safest speeds a driver can travel? Or are higher speeds, when driven by responsible and attentive motorists, as safe, or safer, than lower speeds?
I know what many of you are thinking. Speeding — even just one mile per hour over the posted speed limit — is dangerous and morally repugnant, right?
Recent studies have shown that the methods of traffic enforcement we all know and love, from the methods used to set speed limits to traditional police enforcement, are ineffective at best. Many states around the country, including Texas, Michigan and California, are reimagining traffic management and speed limits on interstates and major highways. There are other initiatives, as well, such as removing cameras from intersections and roadways (for more on “the eyes in the sky click here), and limiting the power of police to ticket motorists.
Alabama, once again, lags behind. While other states are allowing their citizens more freedom on their roadways, the Heart of Dixie is stuck in the past with speed limits that are generally ignored and a police presence more akin to the border checkpoints of a socialist dictatorship. What are these other states doing that Alabama, by and large, isn’t? Using a traffic management concept known as the 85th percentile.
Realistic Speed Limits and 85th Percentile?
Before I go any further, let me say that I’m not advocating the removal of speed limits altogether. No one is suggesting that motorists be allowed to drive 100 MPH down Main Street of small-town Alabama during the Children’s Happy Fun Day Parade. Instead, state departments of transportation and other authorities should be encouraged to set speed limits and traffic management patterns that take into account the majority of the population’s ability to get from Point A to Point B safely. This is the view of Gary Biller, executive director of the National Motorists Association, a driver’s advocacy group founded in 1982 to combat the 55-MPH national maximum speed limit.
“Speed limits should be based on sound traffic-engineering principles that consider responsible motorists’ actual travel speeds,” Biller says. “Typically, this should result in speed limits set at the 85th percentile speed of traffic flowing under normal conditions.” Simply put, a speed limit should reflect the speed under which 85 percent of traffic is traveling. The speed of the top 15 percent — or the “outliers,” as the NMA refers to them — is discounted, the theory being that those motorists far exceed the speed limit under any condition. The result, says Biller, should be realistic speed limits that encourage drivers to comply by conforming to the safe behaviors of most drivers. This, Biller explains, would allow for a safer flow of traffic for everyone and make it easier for law enforcement to ticket the real offenders, rather than practically treating everyone as a potential violator of the law.
“What that all means is that, except for the outliers, those who drive too fast for the conditions, the safest flow of traffic is that which is allowed to travel at its natural pace,” Biller explains. “When traffic becomes heavier, drivers typically adjust to the flow and drive accordingly. Some may get more irritated in congested traffic, but most adapt to the conditions with their welfare and safety in mind.”
As mentioned earlier, many states are have either adopted the 85th percentile concept or are moving in that direction. In fact, the state of Michigan now requires all speed limits on state highways and interstates to be set based on 85th percentile data. However, in Alabama, the new method isn’t getting a lot of love from the ruling class, if they’ve heard about it at all.
For this piece, I asked several members of the Alabama State Legislature for interviews, including all of the Republicans on the Transportation Committee. While I received no direct response, I was able to catch up with state Sen. Slade Blackwell, the representative for the 15th district, which includes Jefferson County, during a public forum in Leeds. Despite his membership on the Transportation Committee, he had never heard of the 85th percentile and, therefore, had no real comment.
In addition, I attempted to contact Del Marsh, president pro tempore of the Alabama State Senate, for an interview. Aside from a brief conversation with a spokesperson from Marsh’s office, I received no response from the senator. However, the spokesperson told me that he wasn’t sure Senator Marsh would want to go on record as someone who wanted to abolish speed limits.
It’s this kind of perverted, all-or-nothing, paternal thinking that keeps the old guard in place regardless of the issue. In this case, the thinking of the old guard is that the posted speed limit is the safest speed in which a motorist should travel on a public road, period. It’s for our own good, you see.
“Whatever the speed limit posted might be, it was set that way for a reason,” says Curtis Somerville, public information officer with the Alabama Department of Public Safety, otherwise known as the state troopers. “You need to remember the state of Alabama doesn’t have to issue you a driver’s license. Driving is not a right. It’s a privilege.”
Fine. Driving is a privilege, but I don’t think that means reasonable adults deserve round-the-clock monitoring, forcing us to spend more time on roads than is necessary and constantly looking over our shoulder for a patrolman in an Alabama bubblegum machine waiting to pounce on the next person simply minding his own business. To be fair, the highway patrol doesn’t set speed limits, or other traffic laws for that matter, but is only tasked with enforcement. Still, I decided to ask him about the 85th percentile and if he would favor the state adopting the concept and raising speed limits, in some instances by as little as five to ten miles per hour.
“The problem is if you raise the speed limit just five or ten miles an hour, then people will want to drive that much faster,” Somerville says. “It’s just like having a teenager. If you allow him to bend the rules, he’s going to want to bend them as far as possible until they break.”
From the safety-first point of view, Somerville’s point sounds logical. It’s the old “give us an inch, we’ll take a mile argument.” From the freedom-loving, “I’m and adult and I can make my own decisions perspective,” this tone is just more overbearing, nanny-state, bravo sierra. While a very nice man and, I believe, genuinely interested in keeping Alabamians safe on the roadways, Somerville must have used the rebellious-teenager analogy five times during our conversation. The problem is, statistically speaking, that analogy doesn’t hold water.
A recent study of the New York Thruway determined that the average speed of traffic of 68 MPH remained unchanged after the speed limit was raised from 55 MPH to 65 MPH. In addition, a study conducted by the Federal Highway Administration proves that raising or lowering the speed limit has practically no effect on actual travel speeds. Biller says adjusting speed limits to the 85th percentile simply makes it easier for drivers to get to their destination or, heaven forbid, enjoy that act of driving.
“The large majority of drivers operate their vehicles prudently, they have a self-interest in not putting themselves in danger, and with those first two things in mind, they have a desire to get to their destination in the shortest possible time,” Biller says. “The majority of drivers will not go faster than what they feel is comfortable and safe regardless of the speed limit.”
I mentioned this concept to Somerville and his reaction was strong, particularly to the word “feel.” “You may feel you’re driving a safe speed, but believe me, we’ve been at this and studied this for a long time and we know what’s best,” he says.
Not to completely belittle his argument, but state and other governmental agencies have been running things for a long time with varying degrees of success. When it comes to traffic enforcement, the thought is that the officer patrolling a stretch of highway he most likely doesn’t use on a regular basis knows more about safe driving conditions than the road’s regular drivers. And, from the enforcement angle, slow is always safer. However, there is something to knowledge gained through experience.
For instance, I’ve driven the same stretch of Interstate 20 from Pell City to Birmingham almost every day for 12 years. I know where the trouble spots are located and when the heaviest traffic is likely to occur. I also know that following the speed limit (45 MPH in some spots due to construction) is scarier and more dangerous than going with the flow of traffic, which tends to be about 15 MPH faster. And I’m not just talking out of my rear end on this subject. Statistics provided by Biller and the NMA show drivers are much better off driving with the flow of traffic, even if it means breaking the law in the process.
“Studies have consistently shown that the drivers most likely to get into accidents are those traveling significantly below the average speed of traffic,” Biller says. “According to research, those driving 10 MPH slower than the prevailing speed are more likely to be involved in an accident.” In essence, if the average speed on an interstate is 70 MPH, the person traveling at 60 MPH is more likely to be involved in an accident, even if his speed is in line with the posted speed limit. Furthermore, the results of research by the Florida Department of Transportation show that the percentage of accidents actually caused by speeding is slightly over two percent.
Fortunately, there is one politician who made tackling unreasonable speed limits a priority. Unfortunately for frustrated drivers all over the Magic City, he governs no where near Birmingham. Regardless, Paul Finley, the mayor of Madison, Ala., a groovy, forward-thinking city of around 50,000 near Huntsville, is a guy all of our elected officials should emulate, if for no other reason than he listened to his constituents and decided to take action while on the campaign trail in 2008.
“Speeding tickets was the number one issue I heard while out campaigning for mayor,” Finley says.
With the intention of fulfilling his campaign promise to Madison voters, Finley set out to learn all he could about new theories regarding traffic safety, enforcement and speed limits.
Once in office, the new mayor discovered that the city engineer had already begun studying traffic patterns in Madison using the 85th percentile formula as a benchmark. “I had never heard of the 85th percentile before. I had no idea what it was or what it meant,” Finley says.
Finley also took into account other factors, such as the hard feelings that were beginning to develop between some citizens of Madison and the police department, and whether police resources could be better used.
In the end, Finley raised the speed limit on more than 25 roads throughout the city, most of them 35-MPH roads, in which the 85th percentile average speed was 44 MPH, raising them to 40 MPH, for instance.
“In most cases, we only raised the speed limit by five miles per hour, but now most drivers are within that acceptable discretionary zone for our police department,” Finley says. “Speeding tickets are way down.”
Finley also put an end to the stationary traffic patrols that so frustrate drivers and asked the Madison Police Department to focus on moving patrols throughout the community. He even lowered the speed limits on many roads through housing developments. Finley wanted his police department to be viewed as a partner to the citizens of Madison, not as an adversary, even if it meant a difference in the city’s bottom line.
“I wanted our officers to be seen driving through neighborhoods, smiling and waving to people and letting them know that we’re here to protect the public’s safety,” Finley says.
“We gave up about a million dollars a year, but I don’t believe your police department should be used for raising revenue,” Finley adds. “It’s about public safety, not generating revenue.”
Despite announcing his intentions to not run for reelection in 2012, Finley’s performance should be seen as successful. Madison is routinely ranked high on many of the lists of the best communities to live, and adopting the 85th percentile is one of his most significant accomplishments.
Again, I am not suggesting we do away completely with speed limits and have anarchy on our highways. However, our police officers have a difficult job fighting crime and bringing real offenders to justice. And unrealistic speed limits, a complex system of traffic laws and this endless game of cat-and-mouse with the po-po simply isn’t productive. That doesn’t make the roads safer, but instead breeds unnecessary animosity towards police and only makes criminals of us all.
Got a ticket? think you’ll get one soon? click here for thoughts on traffic court.