The value of speed limits is usually taken for granted by most people. Every country on earth has speed limits, and their benefits seem pretty clear. Driving more slowly should make things safer for everyone on the road, right? Strangely, though, few people actually stop to think about whether or not speed limits are effective tools. And don’t accidents do damage in places that do have safety laws? Governments around the world hoard data about traffic—surely there’s plenty of hard data justifying this everyday safety measure?
Well, let’s look at the facts.
What Effects Do Speed Limits Actually Have on Accidents?
Speed limits are designed to do two things: reduce the number of traffic accidents and reduce the severity of traffic accidents. The logic is clear and intuitive at first glance; slowing down gives you precious moments necessary to make quick decisions, and impacts at lower speeds are less forceful than those at high speeds.
So how do these hypotheses play out in the real world? According to an article in the Guardian, academic research into the effectiveness of speed limits is clear: limits do provide the precise types of benefits they’re designed to prevent. The degree to which they provide these benefits may leave room for debate, but speed limits are certainly agents of safety.
So What About Speed Limit-Free Roads? How Do They Work?
Everyone has heard travellers’ tales about lawless highways like the Autobahn as well as the 85 mph highway from Austin to San Antonio. Thousand of motorists blaze down these roads like birds in the sky, doing their own thing and thrilling at the high-speed freedom. These highways aren’t in some war-torn country that can’t keep cars under control; they’re right in our backyards. So how do these roads exist?
The Autobahn is a special case. Yes, drivers have the freedom to travel at any speed. But motorists on this most legendary highway must also earn the right to drive as they please. Licensing is more difficult in Germany than it is in the United States, and several other safety laws are actually enforced more strictly there than in most countries. With high-speed highways in Texas (and Montana), the relative lack of traffic keeps accidents at a minimum.
Are There Equally Effective Alternatives to Speed Limits?
While no-limit driving everywhere is not a viable option, the examples set by Germany and Texas do demonstrate that speed limits are not the be-all, end-all of traffic safety. There are many other factors that affect driver safety. Stricter licensing, enforcing left-hand passing laws, and wide open lane space have proven beneficial in Germany, and reduced traffic has kept American equivalents relatively safe. More lanes, better policing, and tougher gateways to driving would all make our roads safe and allow the best of our drivers to go a little faster each day.
So What’s the Verdict?
Speed limits do, basically, work. Research is clear that, in most places anyway, speed limits save lives and keep cars in working condition. But speed limits aren’t everything. Several factors come into play when analyzing safety statistics, and it might be time for policy makers and the general public to take a look at some of these factors when planning the future of America’s highways.