Unsafe at Any Speed




All this talk of lost freedoms, yet no one mentions the most American freedom of all: speeding down a highway, windows down, hair blowing across your eyes but who cares because there are no other cars in sight, just the open road and a green blur of trees on either side. One hand light on the wheel, the other out the window, right foot heavy and feeling the vibrations. Rock ’n’ roll blasting, because what else would do?

We still speed. The most frequently broken law in the United States is the numeric speed limit. But now we speed because we are late or angry; there is seldom any joy in it. Nor is it safe: the roads are too crowded to allow safe reaction time and maneuvering. (Also, the curmudgeons insist that people no longer know how to drive. And they are right.)

Nostalgia for the open road buzzkilled, I decide to experiment with maturity. I will drive the legal speed limit everywhere I go. Exactly the speed limit, not one mile over.

It is exhausting.

What is it that makes it so difficult for—well, at least some of us—to abide by a numeric limit? We edge up, tell each other there is a five-mile window of impunity, take that as the new limit and edge five miles higher. Rebellion is as American as freedom.

Next, I change the experiment and ignore the speedometer altogether. I drive in a way that felt safe to me, courteous to others, and sufficiently efficient. I intend to make my own sensible rules, just for a day. If it earns me a ticket, fine.

Surprise: every time I allow myself to check the speedometer, I am just slightly over the posted speed limit. The only exception is the freeway.

It seems I chafe at the low speed limits on smaller roads only for the fun of grumbling, yet I would set nearly the same limit myself. When I ignore limits and drive at a speed that seems wise, I am calm. When I am driving to avoid a ticket, though, the world shifts into slo-mo, and my foot hovers above the accelerator so often and so long, my hamstrings spasm.

Do I just crave the idea of speed? Few of my quotidian errands warrant speeding, yet the fact that my Mini’s speedometer goes up to 160 makes me absurdly happy. I like the possibility of speed. Forget the big, high-performance cars that glide at top speed without you even noticing. I like a little friction, that sense of whizzing over the road. More the feeling of speeding than speed itself.

I also like the game, the way we all dance at the margins of what is acceptable. This country has always pushed the limits, an imperative that often makes us obnoxious. We refuse to offer simple courtesies that might keep others healthy; we rev up the pace of life until we are all gulping Xanax. But zipping down an otherwise boring freeway just a few miles faster than we should? Is delightful. Maybe we have watched too many high-speed chases on tv. Or maybe we have built a hardscape nobody wants to see, and it is more comfortable to speed past all those ugly, boring strip malls.

Police officers speed, too, in self-defense. One told a Slate reporter they have to; if they drive the speed limit or below, nobody wants to pass them. “The highway’s self-organizing system would disintegrate,” the reporter realizes, “and traffic would slow to molasses.”

For twenty-one years, we tried maple syrup, setting a limit of 55 miles per hour to avoid sucking up the gasoline OPEC was using as a political bargaining chip. (Fuel-saving measures also led to a far more revolutionary shift: women were allowed to wear slacks in the now chilly White House.) And lowering the speed limit saved lives. In the first six months of 1974, highway deaths fell by 23 percent. That was considered reason enough, oil monopolies aside, to make the double-nickel speed max permanent. But Americans bristled at the low speed. Hell, they bristled at the very idea of conservation. According to the Slate piece, economists did a cost-benefit analysis, and it was “soundly in favor of letting people drive faster if you assigned even a fractional wage value to all the wasted, 55-mph highway hours. In short, at higher speeds, many people died, but many more got to work on time.”

Once more, we took an iconic aspect of American life that we had outgrown and resurrected it with a capitalist calculus. The result took away all the original joy—but the strategy worked. We bounced instead of crashing. The speed limit was raised, and traffic fatalities went down. Why? Probably because we have safer cars now. More people took the faster interstates, which, despite the higher speeds, are far safer than any other type of road. Also more crowded, these days, which inhibits the old exuberance. And the rest of us could match the speed the scofflaws were already driving, which reduced the dangerous variation in speeds.

Stats aside, though, it is a matter of physics that accidents do more damage at higher speeds. More than one in four fatal crashes involve at least one speeding driver, and God help the cyclists and pedestrians caught in a car’s high-speed trajectory. Last year, projected traffic fatalities began to rise again—by 18 percent.

Speed itself might not be the problem. The quality of roads, skill of drivers, and civilized willingness to cooperate all play a role. Europe has high speeds and far fewer traffic fatalities; the EU’s roads are the world’s safest. Limits are enforced by cameras instead of go-get-’em-cowboy flashing lights and siren. People receive a notice by mail, and because they are grown-ups, they pay it. In Germany, there is no speed limit at all on the Autobahn. (They are considering imposing a limit—of 93 miles per hour.)

I might be happier in my ancestral land, far from my husband’s litany of “Slow down, babe…. Watch it here, the cops hide around that curve… Watch your speed…” Sometimes I just fail to notice the speedometer. Other times I am impatient, bored, or extra happy. Also, the old stereotype was that women drove timidly and men drove fast, and just remembering that makes me want to shift into fifth gear and floor it.

Alas, my country no longer qualifies for its old freedoms. The United States is too crowded, too angry, too arrogant, and too far behind in infrastructure.

It might be time to grow up.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.