Thursday, November 18, 2010

Anarchy on the Highway on Guy Fawkes Day

My wife and I celebrated Guy Fawkes Day by droving down to Chattanooga after spending the night in Winchester, Virginia. We got on the road just before sunup and were on our way. She had a very important appointment outside Chattanooga, and there was no way we were going to get there in time driving the posted speed limit.

I was surprised at how many cars there were on the road, but even more surprising was that we were all doing about eighty, the usual almost ten miles an hour over the speed limit. I wasn't the fastest car on the road, so those who passed us must have been doing over eighty. When I lived in Virginia during high school, the drivers' manual said that exceeding eighty was considered reckless driving, but I wouldn't have considered anybody there reckless. We were simply making very good time.

It was an anarchist's dream: no police, just hundreds of people who all wanted to get where they were going as fast as they could. I've been in similar situations where there were jerks, people weaving in and out of traffic, going way too fast, but this was a good day. Had there been no posted speed limit, I'm not sure how much faster we would have driven. Gasoline consumption increases exponentially with speed after a certain point, as does wear on the car, so I think I was about at my personal limit, but others might have gone faster. To them I say, "More power to ya, Buddy. Just don't hit anything."

On the return trip, almost as soon as we got into Virginia, even though there was much less traffic on the road, we saw state troopers pulling drivers over right and left. I didn't see how fast the cars were traveling before they were pulled over, but even if they were doing eighty (the speed limit in southern Virginia is sixty-five), I can't imagine that they would have been a hazard to anyone.

But, I hear the angels say, the law is the law, and we must obey it, even if it seems silly. And they might be right. But what if obeying the law is more dangerous than breaking it?

You've seen it happen, I'm sure: On a divided highway with two lanes going your way, two cars are driving side-by-side, neither passing the other. You've been driving faster than they, so you've come up behind the guy in the left lane, hoping he'll either speed up and pass or slow down and let you by. But he does neither.

So you back off, because you are a careful driver and know that you need at least two seconds between you and the car in front of you. Long about this time someone comes up behind you, dips into the right lane, then comes between you and the car in front of you. Then another car comes and does the same thing to him, and before you know it, you're ten cars behind the car you were originally tailing. And unless you're more spiritual than I am—not that that's particularly difficult—you're pretty hot under the collar. Right away, that's danger, and the passing on the right is a hazard per se. (I've even seen people pass such blockades on the shoulder.)

Now, if John Law is sitting by the side of the road with his radar gun, he's not going to catch blockading. He'll either be content because everyone is obeying the speed limit or unhappy that he has to wait longer to fulfill his ticket quota. Patrolmen in private life may be the nicest people you'll ever meet, but in that capacity they're worse than useless.

Then there are the times when the vehicle in front of you is driving erratically, and you need to go well over the speed limit for a few seconds to get by him quickly. (My driver ed class said this was OK when passing on a two-lane road so you could spend less time in the oncoming lane, but that was forty years ago and may not be relevant.) If that's when you hit the radar zone, what can the cop think but that you've been speeding all along?

Am I the only one who thinks that this ticketing of speeders is arbitrary (and thus unjust) at best and malicious at worst? Yes, God has ordained the powers that be, but can't he do any better than this?

If safety, not tickets, were the true object of highway patrol work, wouldn't it make more sense for the patrolmen to be on the road, driving exactly the speed limit (instead of five or, more often, ten miles per hour faster, as I see most doing, without lights or sirens), sporting a believable threat to ticket anyone who passes them? I saw that happen once driving west from Chicago; one cop car with at least a hundred vehicles stacked up behind him. I wasn't in a hurry, so I didn't mind, but if I had been, my resentment would have been against the folks who set the speed limit, not against the guy in the car. How different that would be from the way I felt about the guys pulling over drivers on an almost empty road in Virginia that day.

Need I also mention that this system wouldn't require a guy with a six-figure salary (if you factor in pension and other bennies) to drive a six-figure muscle car to implement? A high schooler in a Smart Car with a camera could do the job (provided he had the requisite character) for twice what he'd make at McDonalds for a quarter the cost of deploying a highway patrolman. And that's only if we decide speed control is needed, which I think remains to be proven.

Even better, of course, would be if the roads were privately owned. There would need to be some kind of police activity, to be sure, but the patrolmen then would be like bouncers in a bar; their message would be, "We want to keep you as a customer, but we also want to keep our other customers happy." The idea of treating a rude driver like a criminal would be far from the ethos of the private highway, though not nealy as far away as using traffic tickets to top off municipal coffers.

I know, "We live in a fallen world, and your system wouldn't be perfect." Would there be jerks in an anarchic system? Yes. Would innocent people die in accidents? Yes.

Does that all happen now? Yes. Does ticketing a small fraction of violators, most of whom pose no real hazard, make up for the failure of the system to protect lives and promote justice? No.


  1. As you may know, Virginia is the only state that bans the use and sale of radar detectors. There is no evidence that the radar detector ban increases highway safety. Our nation’s fatality rates have fallen consistently for almost two decades. Virginia’s fatality rate has also fallen, but not any more dramatically than it has nationwide. Research has even shown that radar detector owners have a lower accident rate than motorists who do not own a detector.

    Maintaining the ban is not in the best interest of Virginians or visitors to the state. I know and know of people that will not drive in Virginia due to this ban. Unjust enforcement practices are not unheard of, and radar detectors can keep safe motorists from being exploited by abusive speed traps. Likewise, the ban has a negative impact on Virginia’s business community. Electronic distributors lose business to neighboring states and Virginia misses out on valuable sales tax revenue.

    Radar detector bans do not work. Research and experience show that radar detector bans do not result in lower accident rates, improved speed-limit compliance or reduce auto insurance expenditures.
    • The Virginia radar detector ban is difficult and expensive to enforce. The Virginia ban diverts precious law enforcement resources from more important duties and this ban may be ILLEGAL.
    • Radar detectors are legal in the rest of the nation, in all 49 other states. In fact, the first state to test a radar detector ban, Connecticut, repealed the law – it ruled the law was ineffective and unfair. It is time for our Virginia to join the rest of the nation.
    • It has never been shown that radar detectors cause accidents or even encourage motorists to drive faster than they would otherwise. The Yankelovich – Clancy – Shulman Radar Detector Study conducted in 1987, showed that radar detector users drove an average of 34% further between accidents (233,933 miles versus 174,554 miles) than non radar detector users. The study also showed that they have much higher seat belt use compliance. If drivers with radar detectors have fewer accidents, it follows that they have reduced insurance costs – it is counterproductive to ban radar detectors.
    • In a similar study performed in Great Britain by MORI in 2001 the summary reports that "Users (of radar detectors) appear to travel 50% further between accidents than non-users. In this survey the users interviewed traveling on average 217,353 miles between accidents compared to 143,401 miles between accidents of those non-users randomly drawn from the general public." The MORI study also reported "Three quarters agree, perhaps unsurprisingly, that since purchasing a radar detector they have become more conscious about keeping to the speed limit..." and "Three in five detector users claim to have become a safer driver since purchasing a detector."
    • Modern radar detectors play a significant role in preventing accidents and laying the technology foundation for the Safety Warning System® (SWS). Radar detectors with SWS alert motorists to oncoming emergency vehicles, potential road hazards, and unusual traffic conditions. There are more than 10 million radar detectors with SWS in use nationwide. The federal government has earmarked $2.1 million for further study of the SWS over a three-year period of time. The U.S. Department of Transportation is administering grants to state and local governments to purchase the SWS system and study its effectiveness (for example, in the form of SWS transmitters for school buses and emergency vehicles). The drivers of Virginia deserve the right to the important safety benefits that SWS delivers.

    Please sign this petition and help to repeal this ban and give drivers in Virginia the freedom to know if they are under surveillance and to use their property legally:

    Tell Friends and Family about this.

  2. Well, my friend, I can't be much help to you, since I live in Pennsylvania. But you're welcome to direct your friends to my site to read your announcement!