The Wall Street Journal

July 14, 2006

Death on the Highway: How Fast Is Too Fast?
July 14, 2006; Page A13

Thank you for your editorial confirming what most drivers already believe: American highways and modern cars are safe enough for speeds far in excess of posted limits. So why do we put up with speed limits that nearly everyone feels are too low?

Motor vehicles can be deadly at any speed. Increases in speed increase the potential danger, but if 65 mph is unacceptable, then why is 55 mph okay? We might save even more lives by forcing everyone to amble along the freeway at 35 mph. Yet our society is willing to tolerate some risk. After all, we allow people to consume alcohol even though it is routinely abused and directly contributes to horrific drunk-driving deaths. We allow people to dig swimming pools even though many children drown in them. We allow the construction of tall buildings even though people die falling from them. And we allow people to operate motor vehicles at speeds that can kill.

Anyone who has been on a highway recently can see firsthand that the vast majority of drivers feel it is reasonable to ignore the posted speed limits. This informal speed consensus varies with the road and conditions but it often exceeds 85 mph on the best highways. This is not without precedent, as many foreign countries sanction the operation of passenger cars at those speeds.

In any case, speed should not be used as an absolute surrogate for safety. Highways would be much safer if police concerned themselves exclusively with the reckless drivers -- those tailgating, weaving through lanes without signaling or obstructing the flow of traffic in passing lanes. Drivers uncomfortable at higher speeds should stay out of the left lanes. Trucks should be held to tighter limits (as they are in Europe) in recognition of their greater mass and lower maneuverability. But for the rest of us it's time we demanded more reasonable speed limits on our highways.

David Bookstaber
Berwyn, Pa.

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