Thursday, October 19, 2017

On the Vagaries of Driving in the USA

I have recently returned from driving from Virginia, through West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, and back to Virginia. The bulk of this drive, although not all of it, was on interstate highways. The driving time was approximately 70 driving hours, covering nearly 4,500 miles. The drive gave me ample time to observe other drivers, road conditions, and road signs along the way.


 The first impression I had was that there was one overwhelmingly favorite road sign in all the states. That sign is: “Fines doubled”, for various reasons. The ubiquity of this sign, in all its variations, leads me to surmise the following:
     1. In general, drivers do not obey speed limits – especially reduced speed limits in construction zones, hence the desire to increase penalties in an effort to emphasize the need for safer behavior in these areas;
     2. There is a distinct tendency on the part of the state administrations, to believe that the average driver is not able to judge what is an appropriate speed, given the state of the construction zones, presence or absence of workers, the condition of the road, the density of traffic, and the weather that actually exist at the time of his passing. Hence drivers must be severely warned with highly threatening signs to adhere to what the state desires in these areas, rather than use their own experience and judgment based on the local conditions at the time of their encounter with the zone in question.
     3. The real reason for the “fines doubled” signs is revenue enhancement, as adequate penalties are already assigned for law enforcement purposes.

 The revenue enhancement purpose becomes more highly suspected when the “fines doubled” signs are attached to a zone labeled as “safety zone”. These zones are often (though not always) areas where the road is straighter and more level, and sometimes with additional lanes, all of which allows drivers to see farther and more clearly. Thus the zone is often already a safer zone, due to better road conditions. Why then ALSO increase the fines?

Interestingly, I did not see any speed enforcement whatsoever in any of these “safety zones” on this trip, although I passed through a fair number of them. Clearly the state desires no increase of speed – and often an actual reduction in speed – in “safety zones” and simply uses threatening signs as the enforcement methodology of choice.

 Speaking of road signs, here is one unique to New Mexico: “Strong Winds May Exist”. What this sign means, of course, is “Winds strong enough to interfere with your vehicle’s stability can occur at this location, so pay attention!” but that is far too long to put onto a road sign, so the message has been condensed to the point where it is little more than a simple statement of fact.

 Other signs of note include warning signs for road construction zones (which multiply like rabbits in the summer and fall). Some construction areas are only a few yards long and don’t even ask for a reduction in speed (although nearly everyone who goes by does, in fact, slow down to a reasonable speed) even when no workers are present. Others can be miles long, with very long additional regions where speed must be reduced and/or lanes blocked off.

 In one construction zone, one lane was blocked off by barrels placed on a base – you know, the ones painted like traffic cones, only the size of 55-gallon barrels. But the barrels were placed so that the travel lane was somewhat narrower than usual. Ahead of me was a tractor-trailer unit. At first I thought the barrel and base that I found in the middle of the travel lane was just happenstance, but as I encountered more and more of them, I noticed that it was the truck ahead of me that was causing them to tip over. As the big rig passed each barrel, the wind of its passing caused the barrel to move. Some barrels recovered, but some did not. Some barrels tipped over and, because the roadway was not level, began to roll while still attached to their base. Others tipped over, leaving their base behind. Those with the base still attached rolled in a spiral, because the base was bigger than the barrel itself – well, the others did too, because the wind was blowing them around. In some places the roadway tipped away from the travel lane, and there the barrels rolled out of the way, but in some places “downhill” was into the travel lane, and there the barrels might pass entirely through the travel lane and into the median or they could stop in the center of the travel lane, creating a hazard to traffic.

 It just goes to show that there really is a need to increase attention and awareness in construction zones.

 Another construction zone I traversed was 17 miles long, with the speed limit reduced by 15 mph the entire way. Watching carefully throughout the whole zone, I saw exactly one worker standing in the median (well off the actual roadway) repairing a single post. For this, literally hundreds of drivers had to slow from 70 to 55 and maintain that reduced speed for the next 18.5 minutes even though the actual working zone was less than ten feet long, containing a single worker well off the roadway. During the time I was at the reduced speed, I was passed by every single vehicle that appeared in my rear-view mirror, no matter how far behind me it was when it first appeared. So, apparently, I was the only one who slowed down. I estimate that this single zone imposed an additional 100 hours of driver’s time each day on the vehicles that passed through – well, less for those who ignored the signs.

 Okay, this is an extreme example. However, it does illustrate that drivers will do what they believe is reasonable, regardless of the signs, and it highlights the tendency of Department of Transportation officials, and lawmakers in general, to believe that drivers are not capable of making reasoned judgments regarding a reasonable speed for such conditions.

 Also, one may suspect that the signs are more of a CYA so that the DOT is protecting itself from drivers who may want to sue the state rather than take responsibility for their own mistakes in judgment.


 Speed limits climb as one drives from Virginia to Utah; from 70mph in Virginia to a maximum of 80mph in Utah (also in Kansas), with 75mph being common in the western states where traffic density tends to be substantially lower than in eastern states. The condition of the roads – we’re talking only of interstate highways here – also tends to be better in the west, which, coupled with lower traffic densities and longer distances between settlements, makes such speeds understandable.

 However, I noted with interest that very few drivers actually drive below, or even at, the speed limit. I encountered bad weather only once on this trip – low, dark clouds, rain, and poor visibility – and then the traffic did slow down, but otherwise not so much. Those who drive below the speed limit most often have special circumstances, such as trailers, vacation trailers, heavy loads, or the like. Most automobiles, however, exceed the speed limit by about 10mph up through speed limits of 75mph.

 At the 80mph limit in Utah (and also in Kansas), however, I saw far fewer drivers exceeding the speed limit; 80mph seems to be about as fast as anyone wants to go. There were exceptions, of course, but I didn’t see many, and those who did exceed that speed did so for only short distances. For long-haul drivers, 80mph seemed to be fast enough. 

Several years ago I took a trip to Italy, where I rented a diesel-driven station wagon. I drove it all over northern Italy on the very good Italian super highways at 135kph (to go slower was to risk being run over), or about 85mph. At the time, I was one of the slowest cars on the road, and even large trucks passed me by. Such speeds, however, are not usually reached in America, even in Utah, where the speed limit out on the desert, at 80mph, is about as high as it gets.

 Besides, most of our roads are of such poor quality that they simply can’t support vehicles that travel at that speed.

 Judging by the behavior of the drivers I observed throughout this trip, the speed limits on the routes I traveled seem to be:
     1. Set for poor road conditions rather than for good road conditions. By this I mean that if it is set as a LIMIT, that means in plain English that it is not to be exceeded under any circumstances. But by my observations, it is routinely exceeded in good weather, by the great majority of drivers, which means that most drivers believe the limit is too low, and they choose to drive at a speed that they judge is appropriate to the circumstances at the moment, taking into account the time of day, the weather, the traffic density (this observation does not apply to people in cities), the visibility, and their own state of health; and,
     2. Largely unenforced.

 The effect of poorly set speed limits is that:
     1. The legislators create a situation by which they turn most (sometimes all) drivers into lawbreakers;
      2. They teach whole generations of drivers that the law (specifically speed laws, but by extension, all law) is unworthy of respect;
      3. Enforcement is random and arbitrary; and
     4. Law enforcement officers are their enemy.

 I would suggest that this combination of effects represents bad governance, and really needs to be corrected.

 In the first place, one effect is that nobody knows what the actual speed limit – what I would call the enforcement limit – actually is at any given time. It appears to the driver to be a judgment call: the enforcement officer’s judgment against the driver’s judgment, and we all know who will win that contest.

 In the second place, most of the drivers on the roads – not all, but most – are experienced, responsible, capable people whose judgment deserves respect. Most speed limits, by contrast, are determined by formulaic rules set by legislators at the various levels of government, and not necessarily by consideration of the actual conditions of the road for which the limit applies. Drivers on those individual roads, however, many of whom drive them every day, are much more familiar with the issues and considerations that apply to each individual road. These considerations may, in fact, be different for roads that otherwise would fall under the same formula as set by the legislators.

 I have observed examples in my own home area, for example, where similar roads have quite different speed limits, and vice versa. One road started out as a two-lane gravel road with a limit of 30mph, and hardly anyone went much faster. Now it is a four-lane divided roadway with a speed limit of 35mph, but most of the traffic moves at about 45mph.

 The point I am trying to make here is that speed limits should take into consideration the general consensus of drivers on each road, not by class of road, and not by the application of a formula. Furthermore, if the speed limit needs to be set differently from the consensus of drivers on the road, the drivers who use the road need to know what that reason is so they can take it into account.

 Well, that’s not going to happen any time soon, anymore than speed bumps will be removed.


 Drivers in different states seem to behave differently. In some states, for example, drivers seem to drive even faster than seems prudent (to me). After observing this tendency, I began to wonder why they did so. The thing is, I have noticed this tendency even when I encounter drivers from those states in Virginia; that is, when drivers from those states are driving in Virginia.

 After driving through those states, I concluded the following:
     1. The speed limits in those states are poorly set.
      2. The speed limits tend to be lower than the limits in nearby states.
     3. The speed limits do not adequately take into account the road conditions; when approaching a region where limits are reduced, they are reduced too early and are held lower too long after that region is passed. A case in point was one construction area where the speed limit was reduced a full three miles before actually reaching the construction itself.
     4. Drivers – especially drivers who encounter these situations every day – are frustrated and offended by these conditions that they are powerless to change.
      5. The end result is that drivers act on those frustrations by over-compensating (driving faster) when speed limits are finally raised, or by simply ignoring speed limits altogether. In short, they are protesting against what they perceive as bad government.

 I first noticed this effect in Kentucky, but it was most prevalent in Illinois where it appears that NO ONE has any respect for the law as it applies to speed limits.


 Another aspect of the speed of traffic is that it rises as you approach a city. One can drive for hours in the country at a speed that matches (or nearly) the speed limit, but when you approach a city, the actual flow of traffic speeds up by about 10mph whereas the speed LIMIT falls by about the same amount. At the same time, traffic density rises – there are far more cars on the road near a city. Usually it is safer to drive at a speed that minimizes encounters with other vehicles on the road, which means it is a good idea to match the speed of the flow of traffic. Approaching a large city, that flow becomes faster, but the speed limit is reduced! Suddenly you find yourself in the position of exceeding the speed limit (traffic speed went up; speed limit went down), so that now, while trying to drive responsively, with a view towards overall safety, you become, by fiat of the state, a lawbreaker. Law enforcement, recognizing the impossibility of actually enforcing the speed limit under these circumstances, is largely absent, in an attempt, no doubt, to not make the situation even worse than it already is.

 This tendency is starkly exemplified in my own home state, where there is a toll road adjacent to a non-toll road. The speed limit on the toll road is 65mph, and on the non-toll road it is 55mph. The limit is fairly rigidly enforced on the toll road, where the traffic density is very light, and driving at 70mph is likely to see you pulled over. But on the non-toll road, where the density is often very heavy, the flow of traffic often rises to about 70mph, with many drivers trying to go even faster. Enforcement is far less common on the “slower” non-toll road where traffic density is greater, and is essentially abandoned during rush hours. Thus we have the situation where exceeding the limit by even a modest amount on the lightly traveled road is enforced, but to exceed the limit on the heavily traveled road, even by a large amount, and especially during periods of very heavy traffic density, is not.

 This situation seems to me to be backwards, but there it is.

 And speaking of law enforcement, it is my observation that enforcement officers do no better than other drivers in respecting the speed limits. As with other drivers, some do and some do not. On the interstate highways, the actual speed limit can be taken as whatever a state police car travels at, which may be well above the posted speed limit. Most drivers, however, recognize that it is not a good idea to actually pass a police car that is traveling above the speed limit. Officers, it should be noted, often have the same frustrations that all other drivers do with following speed limits, as opposed to relying on experience, observation, judgment, responsibility, road and weather conditions, traffic density, urgency of mission, personal alertness and all the other factors that come into play when driving, to choose an appropriate speed. The unavoidable result, however, is to further degrade the public’s respect for the law. If even the law enforcement officers do not obey the law, then why should I?


 Driving a car is a serious business. To compare it to something most people can understand, a 30-06 rifle will discharge a 150-grain bullet at about 3000 feet per second, and will seriously injure or kill almost anything it hits. The energy content of this bullet is about 3000 ft-lb and is the equivalent of a 4000-lb car moving at less than 5mph. The same car traveling at 70mph represents just over 650,000 ft-lb of energy – more than 200 times more than the bullet from a 30-06 rifle. Such lethality deserves to be taken seriously.
The thing is, the handling of firearms is known to be dangerous – everybody recognizes this. Most responsible teachers place a heavy emphasis on the lethality of these items and the requisite need for close attention to the rules for safely handling them. Unfortunately, the same attention is not always given when teaching the operation of motor vehicles, which, just as a point of reference, are far more dangerous. In 2016, for example, deaths in motor vehicle accidents totaled 40,200 in the U.S., with more than 4 million people injured (note1). For comparison, unintentional deaths from firearms in the period 2011-2015 averaged 3,388 per year (note 2) . Most deaths from firearms are intentional – either suicides or homicides – tragic to be sure, but intentional nevertheless. Most deaths from motor vehicle accidents are unintentional (although there is the presumption that an unknown, but small, number are caused by what is termed “suicide by automobile”).

 My point here is that both guns and cars are dangerous. Both are known to be dangerous. But a very large number of people seem to be unaware of how dangerous cars really are.

 It takes all of the driver’s attention to drive a car. The slightest departure from this attention is a risky and potentially lethal act – perhaps lethal for yourself, perhaps lethal for your passenger(s), perhaps lethal for someone you don’t even know. It is something akin to firing a gun at random into a crowd – it may cause no real harm, but then again, it may result in something ranging from inconvenience to death.

 I maintain that it takes a whole brain to drive a car, but the number of brains that are actually in use is more like 1/N, where N represents the number of people in the car. Thus with two people in the car, only ½ brain is available for driving; if three people, only 1/3 is available for driving, and so on. It’s a ball-park figure; some people do better, some worse. My point is that it is a serious responsibility to operate a car.

 But I digress.

 On my trip I traveled safely, for which I give thanks. I saw wonderful scenery along the way, which I always find absolutely fascinating. I visited with people that I love, who I wish I could see more often. But I also spent a great deal of my time concentrating on driving, and thinking about what makes people act the way they do when they are behind the wheel – other drivers, with all their eccentricities and regional variations – that make driving so very interesting.  

Note 1. This is a direct quote from

NSC Motor Vehicle Fatality Estimates
Prepared by the Statistics Department National Safety Council
 Motor-vehicle deaths up 6% in 2016.
 With continued lower gasoline prices and an improving economy resulting in an estimated 3% increase in motor-vehicle mileage, the number of motor-vehicle deaths in 2016 totaled 40,200, up 6% from 2015 and the first time the annual fatality total has exceeded 40,000 since 2007. The 2016 estimate is provisional and may be revised when more data are available. The total for 2016 was up 14% from the 2014 figure. The annual total for 2015 was 37,757, a 7% increase from 2014. The 2014 figure was less than 0.5% higher than 2013. The estimated annual population death rate is 12.40 deaths per 100,000 population, an increase of 5% from the 2015 rate. The estimated annual mileage death rate is 1.25 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, an increase of 3% from the 2015 rate.

 Medically consulted motor-vehicle injuries in 2016 are estimated to be about 4.6 million, an increase of 7% from 2015.

 The estimated cost of motor-vehicle deaths, injuries, and property damage in 2016 was $432.5 billion, an increase of 12% from 2015. The costs include wage and productivity losses, medical expenses, administrative expenses, employer costs, and property damage.

 Note 2. From Everytown Research; this note was in the form of a pie graph, which did not make the transition into the blog format.  The graphic can be found at