Will Wilson is a former GOVERNING correspondent.E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
I had to find out for myself if Virginia's new speeding fines were slowing down the traffic and if officers were fleecing speeders. So I got a car and went ripping down I-95 this weekend.
I'm somewhat sad to report that the experience left me with little more than confusion over the meaning of "speed limit." Except at visible speed traps, the flow of traffic went about 20 mph over the limit at all times. In fact, I was even passed by a state trooper (not in pursuit) while I was going 15 mph over the limit -- which was not faster than other drivers.
And though I wasn't about to attempt stunts that I would consider truly reckless, I saw a good share of impatient speedfreaks zipping between lanes and through narrow traffic gaps. I never saw any car pulled over after these silly maneuvers.
So maybe the whole hubbub in VA is over nothing, or very little. I'm sure a couple drivers will receive the whopping fines, but it looks like that will only be in extreme cases. As I'm sure the law intended.
But the whole experience raised a more fundamental question for me about the nature of speed limits. I mean, if the cops themselves ignore posted speed signs, what is the law's real meaning. You would never hear someone complain that they were carrying just barely over the legal limit of a narcotic, or had been overbilling Medicaid by only a few dollars. But I know I'd scream if I got a ticket for doing 68 in a 65.
In fact, a giant federal study showed that speed limits effectively don't matter. A change in the posted limit--up or down--has little effect on the speed of traffic. People ignore unrealistic limits. Which might mean that Montana's short-lived "reasonable and prudent" limit was actually really sensible.
So what are speed limits? Guidelines for drivers new to the area? A happy fiction our rule of law society tells itself about our own automobile prudence? A fallback revenue source for states during the hard times? (Do economic slowdowns coincide with traffic slowdowns?) A handout to the signage industry?
Written and compiled by staff writers and editors, GOVERNING View is an on-the-ground, and sometimes behind-the-scenes, look at the topics we're covering in print and online. From notes on what's up in statehouses, county courthouses and city halls, to encounters with people, places and things, GOVERNING View is a window into the side of state and local government you don't always see.