Time to take the brakes off

Interstate 5 between Portland and Salem is mostly a wide, straight, six-lane stretch of smoothly-paved freeway. Sometimes the traffic is fairly backed up and you have to deal with grannies in the left lane trundling past rows of semis in the other two. But when the coast is clear, it’s the kind of road where you can cruise the whole way at 80 to 85 mph without fear of causing a multicar pile-up.

Or you could, if the speed limit weren’t set at 65. This leaves two options. You can creep along at the posted limit for the sole purpose of not getting a ticket and needlessly take a lot longer to arrive at your destination. Or, you can go at a more reasonable speed and be constantly looking over your shoulder for vehicles with black-and-white coloration and light bars on the top, as if you were a common criminal trafficking cocaine or transporting minors across state lines for immoral purposes. Is that a … no, wait, that’s just a Subaru with a ski rack … whew.

But there is hope. Life in the fast lane in Oregon is going to be getting a little bit faster soon, and it’s about time. After two previous bills to raise the speed limit were vetoed by ex-Gov. Kitzhaber, current Gov. Ted Kulongoski signed a bill that will allow the Oregon Department of Transportation to raise the statewide maximum speed limit from 65 mph to 70.

Much of the difficulty in getting such a bill signed into law, despite the widespread support behind it, came from the efforts of the insurance lobby. This is a group that has always vocally opposed such changes in the name of highway safety. Seems like a good argument, at first. After all, what kind of cretin would be against safety? That would be like supporting cancer, or opposing Christmas, or some similarly un-American sentiment. But the dire increases in highway casualties they predict are difficult to take seriously.

Our national interstate system was designed in the 1950s for cars to cruise safely all day at 80 mph – in 1950s cars. That is, cars with no seatbelts, airbags, crumple zones, anti-lock brakes or any of the features that make them so much safer today. In states that have raised their speed levels since the national speed limit was repealed, there has been no statistical increase in road carnage that could be tied to the move. The roads of Oregon aren’t going to turn into one big bloodbath from Astoria to Ashland if people are legally able to drive 70.

So why is there always such an uproar about safety when the topic of raising speed limits comes up? Basically, the speeding-ticket business is so profitable that it’s difficult to let go. Small counties with little funding that happen to have freeways running through them have a mobile cash crop just waiting to be harvested. The state police, who have been trying to cope with an increasingly tight budget for almost a decade now, have a way to offset their losses. And insurance companies make a killing on increased insurance rates for anyone with a couple of tickets on their record. This, rather than any altruistic motives of trying to be “like a good neighbor,” is what drives them to oppose speed-limit increases whenever one is proposed.

Due to these factors, we basically have an Oregon driving tax for anyone who doesn’t cruise around all day with one foot on the brake. It’s time for the state to admit as much and start seeking revenue elsewhere. Bilking money from people who like to drive a little bit faster without taking into account whether they’re doing so safely or not is about as equitable as having people throw darts at a dartboard to see which income-tax bracket they fit into.

It should be noted that the new law doesn’t automatically raise speed limits, it just requires ODOT to study roads on a case-by-case basis to determine whether it would be a good idea to raise the limit in their particular area. Also, it gives the transportation department the opportunity to re-evaluate the urban speed limit of 55 mph.

This is a good start. However, I’m pretty skeptical about the need for speeding tickets at all. Punishable violations should be confined to reckless-driving offenses, weighed against sound modifications in driving for inclement weather, road and traffic conditions, and the condition of the car.

Montana experimented with a similar idea when it replaced its speed limits with the “reasonable and prudent” rule a few years ago. And it didn’t see the big jump in traffic fatalities that certain groups would lead you to expect. Unfortunately, the law wasn’t developed to the point where all the loopholes were ironed out of it. This resulted in lawyers successfully appealing tickets for driving over 100 mph, and other such absurdity.

But the basic idea makes more sense than forcing everyone to adhere to the arbitrary number on a sign day and night, rain or shine, heavy traffic or none. Which do you think is more dangerous, being passed by a new Porsche going 85 on a nearly empty road on a sunny day, or being passed by a ’74 Pinto with bald tires going 65 through heavy traffic in the rain?