Live Free and Die

A recent editorial in the New York Times stated that because as much as 41% of traffic deaths have speed as a contributing factor, the government should make it impossible for people to speed.

For once, the Times has underestimated the severity of the problem: 100% of traffic accidents involve speed.  Stopped cars can’t hit anything. 

The question, of course, is one of excessive speed, and that is a matter of judgment.  What the Times author is arguing for when he calls for all cars to be technologically limited to going no more than 75 mph, ticket-issuing computers calculating one’s average speed between toll booths, and other measures, is for the end of the very possibility of judgment — for fear that a tiny minority will have really bad judgment.

It’s not a very optimistic worldview, but it is typical of the modern nanny state.   Gun control, mandatory retirement “insurance,” helmet laws, and a whole slew of other traffic, financial, and health laws are based on the idea that a lot of people are idiots.  And this idea is fundamentally true: a lot of people are idiots.  But they should be identified and addressed as individuals.  The rest of us should be left alone.  (And if everyone is so stupid, why do we continue to insist on universal suffrage?)

The nanny state philosophy of limiting the freedom of the whole population to protect it from the excessive stupidity of a few imbeciles seeks to create a “Nerf World” in which we’re all denied sharp objects and solid food so that the world is safe for free range dullards.  One’s intelligence, common sense, motivations and morality will no longer matter because none of us will have the capability of deciding.  It’s a world vision that seeks to achieve through the poor judgment of government the world that every child believes God should have created: a world in which nothing bad can happen.

But enough of the philosophical.  Let’s look at specifics and a few simple (unintended) results of the proposal.

The idea that computers should calculate every driver’s average speed and mail him or her a ticket if he exceeds the limit is just depressing.  It assumes that speed limits are set with safety in mind and that the number on the speed limit sign really represents the absolute maximum safe speed.  Speed limits are set in many places to raise revenue.  That’s a simple if unpleasant truth.  Speed limits are also set artificially low to benefit businesses, assuage the overprotective, and avoid liability.  Look at the average flow of traffic on any non-congested road.  You will find it is nearly always above the posted limit.  To believe that the limit really does represent the maximum safe speed (even with a margin of error built into it), you have to believe that everyone on the road, except for that 83-year-old guy doing 50 mph in the middle lane, is an idiot.  Do you really believe 90% of drivers have worse judgment than the city council or the relevant transportation authority?  I find it a little difficult to believe, but then I am a one of the drivers doing 70 where the speed limit is 55 (as long as it’s safe, I mean).

This discrepancy between the posted limit and the limit chosen by the majority of population (the legal definition of a “reasonable man” standard, by the way) also leads to a large overestimate of the degree to which speeding “causes” accidents.  The author of the Times piece points out that different, even neighboring states often report very different proportions of accidents in which “speed” is listed as a contributing factor.  I believe this is simply because some states list speed as a cause if any vehicle involved is believed to have been going over the legal limit, while other states’ police forces choose more of a “reasonable man” standard: was one of the cars going much faster than the flow of traffic or the speed an typical driver would choose to go?

Despite my quip about 100% of accidents involving speed, I believe very few accidents involve a truly excessive speed.  And the sort of drivers that kill people because they are doing 110 mph are not going to be deterred by the speed governors of their cars being set to never go above some allegedly safe speed.  That’s the primary proposal of the editorial: using technology to limit all cars to a universal maximum speed.  The automobile aftermarket in America is huge.  People already buy modifications to their engines and computers and suspension and drivetrain and every other imaginable aspect of their cars — and many of these modifications are designed to increase performance.

Buying a countermeasure to defeat the technological speed “governor” on your car can already be done for those few really high performance cars that have one installed at the factory — and these governors don’t kick in until 130 mph or more.  Imagine how common governor defeating products will be if governors become universal and set at 75 mph (or lower after they exist).

All such laws will do is create a classic petty arms race between citizens and government, in which an unreasonable law is circumvented openly by many, so government passes yet another, more restrictive law.  This law in turn will be bypassed and snickered at as well, leading to another… and so on.  Pretty soon we’re all limited to three cylinder engines and there are speed monitors attached to every other light pole — all issuing tickets to reasonable drivers who committed no other sin than drive through a speed trap town like University Place, Texas or Slidell, La., or Londonderry, N.H. or any of the other 10,000 towns and cities in America that send their traffic cops out every day to assign a random traffic tax to someone doing 45 in a 35mph zone.

It’s true that a more powerful and intrusive (if benevolent) state can save us all from each other and ourselves.  But unless the issue is really serious, it’s not really worth it.  It just adds to the many small hassles of life.  In the end, a free society has to allow its people to use judgment.  Those with bad judgment must be addressed.  But we should not all be treated prophylactically as idiots in need of external restraint.  In the end, tolerance for mistakes is a prerequisite for all freedom.  Without the power to make (allegedly) bad decisions, none of us have any power to decide at all.  To live free, we sometimes die — even in traffic accidents.