When I was in my early 20s, a friend and I traveled from Kansas to Florida to visit a mutual friend from high school. After arriving at the airport, we rented a car and headed down the highway about an hour to our friend’s house.
After about five minutes on the road, I became very confused after seeing what I believed to be a 40 mph speed limit sign. It was a four-lane highway, and we weren’t in a construction zone.
Still perplexed, I turned to my friend and asked, “What’s the speed limit?” He replied, “I don’t know. It has to be 65 or 70, right?”
I told him that I thought I saw a speed limit sign that said 40 mph. “There’s no way that’s right,” he replied. Having taken into account the flow of traffic, we agreed that I must have been mistaken.
However, I kept a keen eye out for the next speed limit sign. Sure enough, the next sign displayed “40” in big font. But what I missed the first time was that underneath the number was the word “minimum.” Shortly after, there was another sign that read, “Speed limit 65.”
My friend and I had never witnessed stand-alone minimum speed traffic signs before. It seemed as if Florida authorities were attempting to enforce the minimum speed just as much as the maximum.
Being an inquisitive person, I asked as many Florida residents as I could about this weird phenomenon. The answer was the same every time.
They told me that the area was having just as much of a problem, if not more, with drivers going too slow as they did with drivers going too fast. Having vehicles going 35 mph on the same highway as vehicles going 65-70 mph was a surefire recipe for an accident, they said.
I remember thinking, “That makes sense.”
You may be guessing where I’m going with this.
On Friday, Aug. 26, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released a preliminary copy of a notice of proposed rulemaking that seeks to mandate speed limiters on heavy-duty trucks.
In effect, the FMCSA and NHTSA are pushing a regulation that will create the specific problem that Florida authorities were attempting to eliminate.
Numerous studies have shown the dangers of differential speeds. In 1964, David Solomon collected data from 11 cooperating states on 600 miles of main rural highways. The study recorded 10,000 drivers across two-lane and four-lane highways and discovered vehicles travelling 10-15 mph slower than the average speed of traffic had a much greater chance of being involved in a crash. In 1991, the NHTSA released a study that confirmed Solomon’s findings.
In 2005, Dr. Steven L. Johnson of the University of Arkansas found that as the speed of an individual vehicle deviates from the mean traffic speed on a roadway, the number of interactions between vehicles increases and the potential for being involved in accidents increases. The frequency of interactions with other vehicles by a vehicle traveling 10 mph below the posted speed limit is 227 percent higher than when it is moving at traffic speed.
As of Friday, a top speed was not included in the notice. But no matter what the speed ends up being, problems are a certainty. Since there isn’t a universal speed limit and truckers haul goods all over the United States, there is no way to avoid the problem of speed differentials.
It doesn’t take a fancy degree to see the logic of having all vehicles traveling the same speed on the same road.
But too often, lawmakers and those in charge of making regulations are too busy trying to outsmart themselves.
It reminds me of a great line by comedian Ron White from the Blue Collar Comedy Tour movie in 2003:
“It’s great to be back in Texas, where the speed limit on the interstate is 70 miles per hour, unless you’re in an 18-wheeler; then it’s 65 mph, unless it’s at night; then it’s 60 mph, unless you’re in a big car with a trailer; then it’s 55 mph. And they do this because having everybody drive the same speed on the same road just doesn’t make any sense.”