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Is World Going Faster Or Am I Slowing Down?

ON THE ROAD AGAIN / Photo by George Cunningham

Sometimes in life, there may be more than one way of looking at things, and all of them can be right. Take traffic, for instance. Driving across country, it seems to me that people are driving faster and faster and closer and closer together.

I’m not the only one thinking this.

Economics professor Sam Peltzman first described this in a paper he published in 1975 that suggested that as cars become safer, drivers are more willing to take more chances on the highway. This became known as the Peltzman effect. I think the professor was on to something, although traffic deaths have gone down during the ensuing years – partly because of vehicle safety standards, a crackdown on drunk driving, restricting teen access to booze and fewer teens behind the wheel.

On the other hand, traffic engineers say that speed limits do little to make highway safer, since drivers tend to ignore such limits and end up driving at whatever speed seems safe to them. As evidence, they cite President Jimmy Carter’s ill-fated attempt to impose a 55 mph speed limit in order to save gasoline. After a short period everybody was ignoring the new limit and driving at the same speeds they were prior to the presidential edict.

When you chart the speed at which people drive in the real world, you find a big difference between the slow drivers and the fast drivers. But one thing they have in common is that they’re both dangerous.

Traffic engineer and consultant Tom Sohrweide says lowering the posted speed limit does not slow down traffic or increase safety, and raising the posted speed limit does not make people drive faster. Studies have shown that 85 percent of motorists drive at around the same speed, no matter what the posted limit is. And this turns out to be the safest speed. The speedsters and the slow pokes have the most accidents because the speedsters are going so fast they have to weave in and out of traffic and the slow pokes are getting in everybody’s way and causing accidents.

As cars become faster and safer, drivers are inclined to increase their speed. But even as the average driver goes faster, they are still safer than drivers that are either going faster than the flow of traffic or slower.

None of which seems to contradict what Sam Peltzman said more than 40 years ago.

Unfortunately, as the world is going faster and faster, I am getting older and older. My personal strategy has been to go as fast as everybody else, but I give myself an edge by leaving more room between me and the drivers ahead of me.

Of course that doesn’t do much to stop some of the speedsters from running up on my tail or some of the slow pokes from getting in my way. Like we used to say in the 60s. You ride with the tide and you go with the flow.

And you try not to do something stupid along the way.

George Lee Cunningham

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