The Church Of Automotive Safety (Part 4)

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In previous articles, I discussed:

In this article, I’m going to explore another errant belief in The Church of Automotive Safety: speed limits. After that, I’m going to explore some better ways regulators can actually regulate instead of mandate everyone’s choices like zealots.

Speed Limits

Montana used to be known for speed. When there wasn’t a national 55 MPH “double nickel” speed limit, Montana had no speed limits. When the Feds mandated a speed limit, Montana decided to fly the Feds the finger with a $5 penalty for “wasting natural resources.” The $5 fine was payable on the spot and didn’t count against your driving record or affect your insurance rates. After losing a court case and a multi-decade hounding by the Helen Lovejoy crowd, the state relented in 1999 and put in highway speed limits like the rest of the United States.

Given the great faith people place in speed limits, one would think that traffic accidents and fatalities would go down when speed limits go in, but the opposite happened. Fatal accidents on the Interstates went up 111%. Years-long downward trends in fatal accidents ended that year and jumped on all classifications of highway.

How could this be? Did the unbelievers in Montana intentionally wreck and kill themselves to prove the Church wrong and make them look bad? Or is there a problem with speed limits that we should look at?

The video above gives a lot of information, but none of it looks good for Canada’s unreasonably low limits and strict enforcement. Their accidents are double what are seen in Germany, despite many German highways not having a speed limit on rural sections.

Once again, how could this be?

The problem is that speed limits don’t usually have a lot of scientific backing. Research shows that deviating from the speed of the flow of traffic is what causes accidents, and going slower than traffic flow is actually more dangerous than speeding. When speed limits reflect natural driver behavior, usually by setting the limit at the 85th percentile of driver speeds, they’re effective at keeping the flow of traffic, well, flowing. Accidents are prevented. When speed limits are set for political and even revenue reasons, or because Helen Lovejoy demanded lower limits, the flow of traffic gets messed up and accidents actually increase. Bad speed limits are, in fact, worse than no speed limits at all.

What does have good theoretical backing is roadway engineering. Instead of fining people for going fast, you can slow the actual flow of traffic down by making changes to the roads that encourage slower speeds. Narrowing, perceived narrowing, chicanes, and even changing the striping in some cases actually slow cars down. Some governments embrace this approach, but others don’t want to try it because they prefer the revenue that comes from fining speeders.

The basic points of the “Speed Kills” video above still stand:

  • When everyone is going the same speed and they’re paying attention, everyone is safer.
  • Speed limits have to be reasonable and based on driver behavior to be effective.
  • Public officials and lazy journalists are parroting false narratives that support the deadly status quo.
  • Studies show higher limits often produce lower crashes.

The Church of Automotive Safety doesn’t like any of these facts, and would rather I not tell you any of this. There’s just no money in it for them.

There’s a great follow-up video here:

My New Faith: The Reformed Church of Scientific Automotive Safety

Like Martin Luther, I’m going to go ahead and start a “protestant” movement. Here are some of the beliefs of The Reformed Church of Scientific Automotive Safety.

Regulation should aim to keep things regular, in much the same way Metamucil keeps people’s digestive system regular. In other words, we need to keep things moving well. The goal isn’t to produce absolute safety, because that’s statistically impossible. To regulate doesn’t mean “to encumber with rules” or “make every decision.”

To achieve the desired realistic level of safety, regulations should prescribe outcomes instead of micromanaging. For crash testing, the probability of injury should be below a certain level. If a manufacturer uses airbags to get there, great! Lives will be saved. If they don’t, but achieve the same level of safety by some other means, then there’s nothing wrong with that. Regulators should be setting goals a lot more and micromanaging a lot less.

All regulations should be based on evidence. Tradition, what sounds good, and what’s politically favored are all considerations that have no place in automotive safety. If a system is causing real-world problems, there’s a case for regulators to act. If nobody is being hurt, the hypothetical harms shouldn’t be enough to justify taking personal responsibility away. More importantly, manufacturers should never be held accountable for the misuse of their products, people not wearing seatbelts, etc. People doing bad things should be held accountable on the personal level, or at the very least bear full responsibility.

Helen Lovejoy shouldn’t be allowed to dictate public policy. Unless there’s some real evidence that there’s a problem that a proposed law or regulation would actually solve, Helen’s ideas aren’t even worthy of consideration. Even when there’s evidence for her ideas, we have to not forget that removing personal responsibility doesn’t actually lead to safety. We also can’t let ourselves go on a Don Quixote quest for absolute safety, because that’s impossible and we can’t bring our whole society to a halt. Safety Third.

I’ve got two more related articles coming up, but they’re not a part of this series. In one, a flawed study attempts to use the speed limit as a yardstick for safety for ADAS systems. After this article, readers should know that speed limits alone aren’t good data. There’s also the hysterical “think of the children” fear of Tesla’s FSD Beta, despite no accidents having occurred and inattentive users having been removed.

My goal here was to introduce the concept of The Church of Automotive Safety, and not to cover everything the Church’s clergy are doing wrong. I will be referring to this series regularly as I confront the lies, half-truths, and hysterics that come from the people who demand we accept their ideas on faith.

Stay tuned!

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1770 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba