The Greed for Speed

When I heard about the legislative proposal to raise the top speed limit in Florida to 75 mph, I was surprised the bill didn’t include other measures sure to increase highway safety—like allowing passing on the right, Skype-ing while driving, and lowering the driving age to 13.

Attention, members of the Florida Legislature: I am joking. You can’t be too careful what ideas you put in the heads of lawmakers who want to make it OK for every front-porch Barney Fife to fire warning shots at his own shadow.

Florida ranks No. 6 among states with the “most dangerous drivers”  according to a study based on National Highway Traffic Administration and Mothers Against Drunk Driving data, including fatalities, drunk driving and tickets issued for driving like Justin Bieber (“careless driving”).

I don’t know how you study that data and think, “The roads would be a lot safer if everyone just drove faster.” That’s like looking at a big pile of oily rags in the attic and thinking, “You know, we could reduce the fire hazard up here by storing gas cans and fireworks.”

Noel Warner, 67, is owner of B&W Driving School in Orlando. His students range from widows who’ve never driven to jittery teens prepping for their license. I asked what he thought about raising the speed limit to 75 on interstates and other divided four-lane highways.

“My first reaction was ‘Why?’ The driving conditions in Florida already are horrendous,” Warner said.

When I found the “why” in a quote from State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, co-sponsor of the bill, I read it over and over because I couldn’t believe what I was reading.

“Speed limits should be set based on what most drivers are actually driving,” Brandes said. “People drive at the speed they feel comfortable.”

Really? I got Brandes on the phone and asked him if this law wasn’t just a way of decriminalizing what now is defined as breaking the speeding law.

“The legislature is constantly changing laws to fit the opinions of constituents,” Brandes said.
When did making laws become the People’s Choice Awards?

It turns out Brandes has company among advocates for raising speed limits in other states. In fact, they all seem to be reading from the same script.

When Utah raised the speed limit from 75 to 80, the bill’s sponsor said, “The bottom line is people were already going that fast and now they can do it legally. People have a comfort level of how fast they will go.”

In Maine, the legislator who introduced the bill raising the limit to 75 parroted his constituents. “Their main reasoning is, everyone is traveling 75 anyway and they are not getting pulled over. Why not make it official?”

Welcome to the Why not? philosophy of lawmaking. It could be applied to smoking dope, jaywalking, not picking up after your dog— anything that meets the “comfort level” of some voters.

Everyone is (insert violation here). Why not make it official?

Both sides of the speed limit debate have lined up “experts” and interest groups to prove their point.

“In Florida and across the country, it has been clear that injuries and fatalities go up whenever someone raises the speed limit,” says a spokesman for the National Safety Council.

Au contraire, says a spokesman for the National Motorists Association, who has the chutzpah to blame slow drivers for increased accidents. “Slower vehicles impede smooth traffic flow and create conflicts among vehicles.”

All I know is that, increasingly, I feel my next trip to the beach could be my last. We live in south Orlando, a little less than an hour from Cocoa Beach if you’re doing the 70 mph limit. The average speed of vehicles blasting by us on the Beachline has to be over 80; plenty are doing 90 or better.

And I never see a cop—except those supervising cleanup of an ugly accident.
We like to blame transplanted New Yorkers for bringing highway mayhem with them, but New York state ranks a much safer No. 23 in the “most dangerous drivers” study. Warner, a native New Yorker, is not surprised.

The top speed limit there is 65, texting while driving is a primary offense (cops don’t need another reason to stop you), and “you always see police,” Warner said. “We need stronger enforcement of existing laws in Florida.”

Sen. Brandes told me the main concern he’s heard from voters about raising the limit from 70 to 75 is the cost of new signs. No problem, he said.

“Just stick a 5 over the 0.”

Why not? It’s cheaper than putting more cops on the road. 

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