Speed Limits and Freedom

Imagine if government told you what clothes you had to wear every day. Imagine that the clothes were the same outfit regardless of the season. Or if government – as it does in Cuba – gave you food rations. The same ration to everyone regardless of how big or small you are, what kind of work you do, how often you exercise, etc.

That would be inconvenient, would it not? Some people, like us libertarians, might even go so far as to call it intrusive… you know, a violation of individual freedom. That pesky little thing that so many millions of people living under dictatorships dream of when they go to bed at night.

It may not seem like much of an incursion into people’s freedom to force them to eat government-dictated food rations. After all, we are all going to be fed, right? After all, government apportions health care among the citizens in most countries, and often takes a monopoly on educating the kids. Why should not government control our food intake as well?

This rhetorical question is obviously yet another version of the standard question that should go out to all American liberals, European social democrats, statists, socialists and collectivists all over the world: when is government big enough for you? If the past 75 or so years has taught us anything, it is that those who want more government will always want more government, regardless of how much more government they get.

The British newspaper The Telegraph reports on another example of government’s relentless extension of its tentacles into our lives:

All cars could be fitted with devices that stop them going over 70mph, under new EU road safety measures which aim to cut deaths from road accidents by a third. Under the proposals new cars would be fitted with cameras that could read road speed limit signs and automatically apply the brakes when this is exceeded.

Many years ago I got pulled over for speeding in Colorado. It was a weekend morning on an interstate, and not a car within a mile going in my direction. The weather was perfect, there was no roadwork and farmland opened up on both sides of the freeway. In other words, the best thinkable conditions for driving.

I accidentally set the cruise control at 11mph above the speed limit, as opposed to the eight miles above that virtually guarantees you won’t get pulled over. Sure enough, hidden behind a bridge span is a state trooper, which cost me $168.

The speed limit was 70mph, a speed that was far too low for what the road and traffic conditions permitted. But since speed limits are set by government they are cemented in bureaucracy. Given what kind of unforgiving winter conditions you can encounter in eastern Colorado, a constant speed limit of 70mph (about 120kph, for you who need ten fingers to keep track of distance) is downright reckless. Not pulling people over for going 60mph in harsh winter conditions is like begging for accidents.

Let’s keep this in mind as we continue to listen to the Telegraph story about what the bureaucrats in Europe are up to:

Patrick McLoughlin, the [British] Transport Secretary, is said to be opposed to the plans, which could also mean existing cars are sent to garages to be fitted with the speed limiters, preventing them from going over 70mph. The new measures have been announced by the European Commission’s Mobility and Transport Department as a measure to reduce the 30,000 people who die on the roads in Europe every year.

Speed is almost never the cause of a fatal accident. What causes accidents on high-speed freeways like the Autobahn is the brutal shift in actual speed between segments of the highway. I have logged a few miles on the Autobahn myself, so I have seen this: you cruise along at 100mph or so, and suddenly come upon a congested section. Those who are not alert enough will break too late.

But this can happen just as easily on highways with limited speeds. I recently drove into Seattle on I-90 through the Snoqualmie. Traffic was modest, road conditions pretty good, so everyone was cruising along at 75-80. All of a sudden, out of the blue, around a bend there is a stand-still congestion. No one crashed into those cars but it was pretty darn close in the lane to my left.

In this case, government was actually the cause of the congestion, but that is a minor point. The main point is that roads can be built to allow for high speeds under safe conditions.

These are of course well-known facts. The problem is not that we cannot build safe, high-speed expressways. The problem is that our politicians are too focused on other things than what really matters. Instead of making sure that we can all travel in freedom, from point A to point B or wherever we want to go, our elected officials and tax-paid bureaucrats spend their time trying to squeeze our transportation needs into some sort of bigger model of what kind of society they want us to live in.

This is especially obvious in Europe where the Eurocracy is expanding its powers almost logarithmically. This is making some British politicians nervous, not because they have anything against more government, but because they know that more EU incursions into people’s lives will drive more voters into the arms of Nigel Farage and UKIP. The Telegraph again:

A Government source told the Mail on Sunday Mr McLoughlin had instructed officials to block the move because they ‘violated’ motorists’ freedom. They said: “This has Big Brother written all over it and is exactly the sort of thing that gets people’s backs up about Brussels.“

I’d like to see them try to take away the remaining free-speed segments on Germany’s Autobahns.

The scheme would work either using satellites, which would communicate limits to cars automatically, or using cameras to read road signs. Drivers can be given a warning of the speed limit, or their speed could be controlled automatically under the new measures. A spokesman for the European Commission said: “There is a currently consultation focusing on speed-limiting technology already fitted to HGVs and buses. “Taking account of the results, the Commission will publish in the autumn a document by its technical experts which will no doubt refer to ISA among many other things.”

Last time I got pulled over was in Alaska.

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I was on the last leg of my five-day drive from Cheyenne to Anchorage (most of which meandered its way through vast wilderness) and frankly getting tired of driving. I just wanted to get there, so yes, I was going a little bit faster than the 55mph speed limit. The trooper told me that he was just a bit concerned about a stretch further down the highway where road conditions were too poor for even going 55. “Try not to go faster than 45 when you get there” he said and let me off with a warning.

That’s the kind of speed limit enforcement we need more of! (And yes, I did slow down!)