When I returned to Marketplace, I commuted from Ripon to Menasha, which was longer distance-wise, but only slightly longer time-wise, and infinitely more pleasant than my previous commute from Ripon to Fond du Lac. The latter drive on Wisconsin 23 (a road that desperately needs upgrading to four lanes; the fact it isn’t may be a commentary on the effectiveness of western Fond du Lac County’s elected representatives in Madison) features two notorious speed traps, the Town of Ripon (which is separate from the City of Ripon) and Rosendale; slow trucks, farm equipment and elderly drivers on a road with few passing opportunities; and the choice between driving through Fond du Lac or taking the longer four-lane bypass around the city (a route that appears to compel bad driving, which compelled some to incorrectly suggest adding stoplights and compelled the Department of Transportation to redesign the bypass).
After a year in Menasha, my office was moved to New London, adding 15 minutes to the commute. After a year there, my office was moved to Oshkosh, cutting my commute to about 25 minutes. All three commutes included Wisconsin 44 between Ripon and Oshkosh, which features only the Town of Ripon speed trap and a slowdown at Pickett (where no cell phone I have ever owned seems to work).
I tend to push the edge between the speed limit and the speed at which the police notice you, a quality I seem to share with most drivers on U.S. 41. I first noticed this when the Department of Transportation conducted its “Summer Heat” initiative to harass drivers and waste gasoline — I mean, ticket speeders and combat “other dangerous driving behavior” on 41 and Interstate 94.
Most speed limits are not set at the traffic engineers’ standard of the 85th percentile — that is, the speed of 85 percent of unimpeded traffic. Speed limits are usually political creations incorporating revenue generation opportunities, which in Wisconsin begin at $160 for a ticket for speeding up to 10 mph over posted limits (one prediction: speed enforcement will increase if a Taxpayer Bill of Rights is ever enacted in this state), combined with constituent tachophobia — fear of speed, which is justifiable near schools and neighborhoods but nowhere else. One town of 1,400 people is so intoxicated with traffic ticket revenue from speed traps that it maintains a police department that actually loses money for the township, from what I’m told. I’m not going to say which township this is (although its name starts with the same letters as the word “ripoff”), but I’d advise watching your speed when you drive west from Rosendale, southwest from Pickett, or east from Green Lake. (If I were governor, speed traps outside of school zones would be illegal.)
Like anything else, a law is obeyed in direct proportion to the perceived reasonableness of that law — the more unreasonable the law is perceived to be, the less likely that law is to be obeyed. The federal government set a national speed limit of 55 mph in 1975, which was supposed to be a temporary response to the energy crisis of that time, enforced by the threatened loss of federal transportation funds for states that didn’t adopt 55. (That is a subject of a future blog entry.) Over the next dozen years, people voted with their right foot as to how reasonable 55 was, particularly on freeways with design speeds exceeding 70 mph. The speed limit was increased to 65 mph for Interstates in 1987 (other non-Interstate freeways later), and then the national speed limit was eliminated altogether in 1995.
Despite that, Wisconsin hasn’t touched its speed limit laws significantly since then, other than to extend 65 to non-freeway four-lanes, such as U.S. 10 west of Fremont and U.S. 41 and 141 north of Abrams. In fact, the freeway speed limit could be increased all the way to 80 mph without much effect on speed, according to a U.S. Department of Transportation study. Drivers usually will drive at speeds they consider to be reasonable, so artificially low speed limits serve to only increase the number of tickets written by local law enforcement, while simultaneously encouraging disrespect for the law in general and those charged with enforcing the law. (The speed limit on Interstate 94 between Chicago and the Illinois–Wisconsin state line is 55 mph. No one drives 55 on 94.)
Every time I see a county sheriff’s or Wisconsin State Patrol squad car sitting on the side of a road, I wonder how many actual criminals are not being caught because that police car is sitting in one spot instead of preventing actual crimes by its patrol presence. (And, by the way, speeding is not a crime — legally, it’s an ordinance violation, not a misdemeanor or felony. The difference is that, unlike crimes that require the prosecution’s proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, speeding violations are based on a strict liability standard — if the officer proves you were speeding, you’re guilty unless you can prove some kind of error in speed measurement.)
What about fuel consumption, which usually increases beyond a certain speed? (We once owned a car where that was not the case — this car spent three weeks in Georgia during the 1996 Olympics, and got 33 mpg at 75 mph. My current car gets a quite acceptable to 27 to 28 mpg at my driving speeds.) Gas prices are where they are because of the weak dollar, decisions to not drill in this country, the lack of refineries, Wisconsin’s stupid minimum markup law. Cars with gas mileage meters also demonstrate that the largest amount of fuel is used not in maintaining speed, but in accelerating to highway speed.
What about safety? Setting higher speed limits on freeways encourages people to drive on freeways, which are, after all, designed for higher speeds, with ramps to get on and off and no cross or head-on traffic. Crash rates are much higher on two-lane roads, where drivers experience head-on traffic, intersections, driveways and passing into oncoming traffic, than on freeways. Cars and highways are also safer, which is why we don’t have the death rates of even 40 years ago. Between 1975, the year before the 55 mph national speed limit was mandated, and 1996, nine years after the end of said mandated national speed limit, the death rate per million miles driven dropped from 3.5 to 1.7. Driving at the prevailing traffic speed is safer than slavishly following the speed limit.
Even more interesting is the German autobahn, which has no speed limits at all over most of the non-urban portions of its nearly 7,000 miles. According to Mark Rask, author of American Autobahn, Germany’s auto death rate has dropped 70 percent since 1970, even with their speed non-limits. In 2001, Rask notes, the death rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled was 0.59 in Germany, vs. 0.81 in the U.S. (One reason: Driver’s licensing requirements are much more stringent in Germany than here. Another, I believe, is that car safety improvements, such as air bags and antilock brakes, have had the unintended consequence of making drivers less careful, as though their vehicles will cover their own driver error.)
There are two areas in which Wisconsin has proven wiser than some other states; one is in not setting lower night and truck speed limits. Doing so is a recipe for more accidents, because high speeds do not cause crashes; variations in speed between vehicles cause crashes. The state also has resisted the push for remote cameras to generate tickets for speeding or running red lights or sobriety checkpoints, perhaps because someone in state government has figured out that both are blatantly unconstitutional (the Fourth and Fifth Amendments, to be precise).
Beyond all these arguments, the fact is that there is only one truly, provably finite and nonrenewable resource: time. (This fact will be deliberately missed on the idiot in the next Congress who introduces a bill to reimpose a low national speed limit under the guise of energy conservation.) Whether you save, on a 40-mile trip, seven minutes driving 65 vs. 55, or 14 minutes by driving 80 vs. 55, that is your own time to do with as you please. This is not insignificant because of another reality — life has a 100 percent death rate.