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Speed Limits & Democracy

On another forum, I had an interesting internet discussion with a highway speed advocate.

This thinker believed that speed limits were set by killjoys who wanted to take thrills away from drivers who liked to drive fast. There was no other reason for these laws in his mind! In about five or six exchanges, I tried to introduce some more logical reasoning. Now I have put this reasoning into a single article.

First off, I understand the frustrations of owners of sports cars. These machines have been designed to handle speeds of 200 km/hr or more, yet when the law says 110 km/hr, the car cannot live up to its potential. So yes, there is some logic that speed limits might have been created by people who don’t like sports cars.

Let’s try to imagine when the legislative committee was sitting trying to decide speed limits on highways. I wasn’t there, but I think I am making a good speculation here.

The committee probably looked at the physics of highway travel in a number of ways:

1. Driving at higher speeds requires more alertness to identify a dangerous situation and then react to it. Only a few drivers have been trained to handle this faster pace.

2. Driving at a higher speed requires longer braking times and distances to come to a stop.

3. Driving at higher speeds means more kinetic energy that needs to be dissipated if there is an accident. The higher kinetic energy means a bigger chance of serious injury or death. 

4. To summarize these three scientific points, more accidents are likely at higher speeds and if there is an accident, it is going to cause a greater damage damage.

The committee probably took a look at research at neighboring jurisdictions and their accident rates and speed limits.

The committee probably looked at more humanistic aspects of high-speed vehicle travel:

1. In particular, having vehicles traveling at different speeds is also a recipe for more accidents. Even though sports cars can go 200 km/hr, big trucks can’t. And many other cars can’t or won’t go that fast. With vehicles at different speeds, there are more “interactions” between vehicles, and each interaction is a heightened chance of an accident. In other words, having every driver move at 110 km/hr is much safer than half the drivers at 100 and the other half at 140.

2. Still too many people drive when impaired (and I would include cell phone usage in this category). A 100 km/hr driver is in a better position to handle the errors of an impaired driver than a 150-km/hr driver.

3. Then we have young inexperienced drivers who are still putting the pieces together of how traffic works. If they see a speeding sports car, they just may not have the background to recognize this car is going much faster than average—and make appropriate decisions.

4. Then we have elderly drivers who are losing their reflexes. They too just cannot recognize a car going faster than average and react appropriately.

5. Too many drivers have a hard enough time slowing down in bad weather. If the speed limit was 150 km/hr, many would not slow down to even 100 km/hr on icy roads.

The committee probably realized that highways would be safer if the speed limit was set at 50 km/hour. For sure, there would be fewer accidents and those accidents would be less severe. However, the economy would suffer greatly if all trucks were reduced to that speed. And there would be increasing frustration from even the most conservative drivers to go that slow.

In the end, the committee finds a speed limit that balances safety, practicality, and political acceptance.

Let’s analyze the implementation of speed limits from another angle: the legitimacy of the democratic process itself.

When the legislative committee to set speed limits has been struck, the members on that committee must have earned the democratic legitimacy to be there; i.e., they won an election and were appointed by their political party. If there is another process to select committee members that would seem fair to most citizens, I would like to hear about it.

That committee cannot set speed limits by itself. After its deliberation, the committee’s recommendation will be written into a bill. Then the bill has to be introduced to the legislature and survive several readings in the legislature. During these readings, the bill can be under the scrutiny of the media and public: there is always an opportunity to amend or defeat it. And in the end, it must be approved by a majority of elected representatives in the legislature.

If the new speed limit is as draconian as the speed advocate believes, those elected representatives will likely be making even more draconian legislation elsewhere. If so, they can be thrown out of office in the next election.

If the speed advocate does not like the speed limits, western democracy still allows him the freedom to change the law. He can send letters to his elected representative. He can take on an activist role, forming a group of like-minded citizens to pressure even more politicians to increase the speed limit. This group can also fund research to prove that higher speed limits are just as safe as lower speed limits. And this person also has the freedom to try to become elected, run on the speed limit platform, and change the law. He has all the mechanisms to effect change to his liking.

To my speed advocate friend, this democratic process has not one bit of validity. In his mind, speed limits were set by some sadistic bureaucratic or unaccountable lobbyist who has a moral agenda and just enjoys taking away life’s pleasures away from other people, especially from owners of sports cars. And this person successfully convinced a liberty-lashing political party to establish a speed limit that is much too low.

When a citizen comes to this reasoning, he is basically undermining democracy.

By all means, the speed advocate is not the only person buying into the mythology that sinister forces are shaping laws. When a piece of legislation that citizens disagree with is created, they portray that legislation as some kind of democratic sham. For example:

1. Speed limits are created by bureaucrats who hate sports cars.

2. Tax cuts are created by the rich for their own financial benefit.

3. Welfare programs are created to get the poor people’s vote.

4. Marijuana is legalized to get the doper’s vote.

5. Offshore drilling is approved to get oil company money into campaign coffers.

6. Food safety regulations are created to build bigger bureaucracies with highly paid civil servants whose sole purpose is to harass restaurants and food processors.

7. Environmental regulations are too strong which punishes business and hurt jobs.

8. Environmental regulations are too weak which allow business to pollute thus forcing the public to clean up the mess.

Indeed these sinister reasons could be part of the reason for why such legislation is eventually passed. But to many citizens, these reasons are the only reasons. There are no redeeming reasons whatsoever to create any law they don’t like! Both the politically right and the politically left are guilty, claiming only sinister forces made laws when those laws don’t align with their version of how the world should be.

In western democracies, seldom do laws come into being without a lot of discussion. The legislative committees hear all sorts of experts and stake-holders and weigh the pros and cons of several alternatives. The biased and less-biased media get their talking heads talking. People in coffee shops do their usual grumbling and complaining. Activists arise to make their points more heard. And in the end, elected representatives take in all these social forces to find some kind of balance. They eventually move to a majority vote to move the bill into law. That is how western democracy works.

This aspect of democracy is being forgotten. When laws are perceived to be created mostly for sinister reasons, then what is the point of democracy?

Published on Writerbeat 2017

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