The Outstater: Safe at any Speed

June 14, 2015

For the use of the membership only.

The most heartfelt arguments of those who favor larger government contend that otherwise life would be unsafe. Those arguments have been spectacularly successful, but are they based on truth?

Food purity has been the pluperfect example since Upton Sinclair wrote “The Jungle,” a novel based on the Chicago packing industry. But why would people dependent on the business of selling us food want to make us sick on their food? The sardonic may suspect that politicians merely yell “fire” so they can claim credit for putting one out.

Sinclair’s prose aside, have we reduced the number of people sickened or just increased costs for consumers? Even the liberal economist John Maynard Keynes warned Franklin Roosevelt that it would be a mistake to assume that bureaucrats are any less evil (or incompetent) than businessmen.

Today, with the government spending $4.7 billion a year for a food-and-drug bureaucracy, are the imposed standards that much more effective over what an unregulated industry would impose voluntarily? Which brings to mind seat belts. How many of those saved by seat belts would not have been wearing them in any case? And did requiring airlines to make parents buy an extra ticket to belt in their infants save lives or merely create the economic necessity to travel long distances on relatively more dangerous roadways?

Surely, though, we can agree that speed kills. Without speed limits, drivers would be crashing their cars all over the place. That, too, is arguable. Modern roads are engineered to safely accommodate speeds 15-25 percent higher than posted.

And there is a pile of studies showing that traffic deaths are unaffected by changes in speed limits — up or down. Affected are long-run shippers in the Midwest and Great Plains that suffer a per-mile disadvantage in competition with short-run shippers on the coasts.

A friend of this foundation, Stephen Moore, studied speed limits for the Cato Institute. He collected comparisons of traffic data before and after Congress repealed the 55-m.p.h. limit in 1995. His conclusion:

“Almost all measures of highway safety show improvement, not more deaths and injuries, since 1995. Despite the fact that 33 states raised their speed limits immediately after the repeal of the mandatory federal speed limit, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported in October 1998 that ‘the traffic death rate dropped to a record low level in 1997.’ Moreover, the average fatality rate even fell in the states that raised their speed limits.”

What does make a difference are drivers going at wildly varying speeds. A traffic officer will tell you sotto voce that if you want to be safe on the highway, ignore the posted limit and stay with the traffic flow. Thus Indiana’s “slowpoke law” goes into effect next month, an admission that limits imposed by government aren’t always a matter of engineering, physics or economics but sometimes only a matter of posture.

Is there another explanation for a law that requires drivers observing the speed limit to pull aside for drivers breaking it? Yes, says a spokesman for the Indiana State Police, it’s “just common sense.”

And as the Cheshire cat told Alice in Wonderland, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road can take you there” — at any speed, wearing your seatbelt and reading your food labels.

— Craig Ladwig

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