The shade of speed is distinctly gray

BY RANDALL RIGSBEE, News + Record Staff
Posted 3/6/20

Some years ago, I conducted an unscientific driving experiment. For an entire week, I adhered strictly to posted speed limits.

If a sign allowed 55 miles per hour, that is the speed at which I …

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The shade of speed is distinctly gray

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Some years ago, I conducted an unscientific driving experiment. For an entire week, I adhered strictly to posted speed limits.

If a sign allowed 55 miles per hour, that is the speed at which I drove; if 35, then 35 miles per hour it was; and so on.

The experiment was every bit the chore it sounds like, and why precisely I ever thought to undertake it, I’ve forgotten. I know I didn’t do it to make people angry. But I remember my conclusions at the end of my self-imposed week of “letter of the law” driving: It makes other motorists mad when you drive strictly according to posted speed limits.

All week I found myself positioned on roadways in front of people wanting to go faster. Certainly, and I’m not a mind-reader, clairvoyance wasn’t required of me to understand the tailgating, the champing at the bit to pass me. And when these hapless tailgaters could (if they could) pass me, they did so frequently with discernible distaste for my slow speed. Again, no supernatural skills needed: I could tell from the gusto with which, engines revving, they made their passing moves. And often when they passed, I noticed them eyeballing me, perhaps to see if there was some observable defect in me (or maybe in my slow car) to explain why I was being so annoying.

Understanding that for every rule there is an exception, inherent in my conclusion that many motorists are angered by slower drivers is the notion — and though my experiment involved no actual science, I’m convinced I’m correct — that most drivers don’t obey posted speed limits, which are often treated as speed suggestions, if not outright ignored.

I live proudly by the axiom that rules were made to be broken, but the same does not apply to laws.

This lesson I learned when I was young, being handed my first speeding ticket at the tender age of 18. And a valuable lesson it was, having to go represent myself in court. Surrounded in a courtroom by people accused of all varieties of crime — the traffic scofflaws sat elbow-to-elbow with wife-beaters, drug-users and miscreants of many stripes, courtrooms being a great equalizer — I understood that court wasn’t a place I wanted to be.

But traffic laws can be interesting. Some seem set in stone (one does not, for example, merely slow down at a STOP sign and expect to get away with it, if observed by an officer of the law) while others appear (like speed limits) more nebulous, or at least open to some degree of interpretation.

There’s a common belief — fostered, I assume, from years of evidence to support it — held by many of us that police officers will allow some wiggle room where speed is concerned. And officers of the law do appear, thankfully, to use some discretion where speed laws are concerned. I’d not want to meet the trooper who would ticket a driver for the transgression of a single mile-per-hour over a posted limit.

But how much wiggle room is allowed?

Is there a sweet spot, a magic number? Is it 5 mph over? Or 10?

The question goes back to my driving experiment of a few years ago, which — for kicks — I repeated over the course of a few days (I couldn’t sustain a full week the second time around) not long ago.

The results of my second social experiment — again involving little if any actual science — were in line with my first: I met with many tailgaters, many drivers impatient to pass, some angry looks.

Even law enforcement officers appeared eager to pass and put distance between themselves and the guy (me) adhering to the precise demands of the law, and I completely understand that.

I’ve now concluded two field tests, conducted several years apart, and from both draw the same conclusion: traffic regulations are posted for all of us to see in black and white, easily discernible letters and numbers; but how we treat them, and how they are enforced is, like so many things in life, a gray area.


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