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Should The Speed Of Cars Driven On Public Roads Be Electronically Limited?

A drunk driver crashes at 156 mph. Is there something wrong with this picture?

Henry Ruggs is a young American football player, which means he has a lot of money for a person his age and little life experience to temper that wealth with good judgment. On November 2, Riggs was driving his Corvette on a street in Las Vegas at 3 o’clock in the morning when he slammed into the rear of a Toyota RAV4. The impact ruptured the gas tank of the Toyota, which burst into flames, killing the driver who was trapped inside.

At the scene of the crash, Ruggs had a blood alcohol level of 0.16% — twice the legal limit in Nevada. He is under house arrest and faces up to 20 years in prison for vehicular homicide. The vehicle recorder in Ruggs’s Corvette says the car was traveling at 156 mph just prior to the crash.

So what’s the point? Precisely this. Should automobiles driven on public streets be capable of driving 156 miles per hour? Every car manufactured today has electronic nannies that control wheel spin on slippery surfaces, keep a car in its proper lane, adapt to the speed of the car ahead, read speed limit signs, apply the brakes automatically if a pedestrian steps off a curb into its path, and park autonomously for drivers who never mastered the fine art of parallel parking. So how difficult would it be to limit their maximum speed to no more than a certain number of miles per hour over the posted speed limit?

If you think getting a Corvette up to 156 mph takes any talent or skill, please see Exhibit A below, a video of a 2021 Corvette that was brought in to the dealer to check out a noise in the engine compartment and then taken out for a test drive on city streets and a local highway by the mechanic. During the joy ride, the mechanic decided to mix things up with another local hot shoe and got the car up to 148 mph without breaking a sweat. The car’s data recorder captured the entire journey, much to the chagrin of the dealership, which promptly offered the owner a brand new 2022 Corvette by way of apology.

We’ve All Done It

Let me be clear. This is not an indictment of Henry Ruggs. Yeah, he is young and stupid, with more money than brains, but who hasn’t done something similar at one time or another? I can remember being behind the wheel of my Jaguar XK-E the night before I shipped out to Saigon and doing really stupid things that could have got me or someone else seriously hurt or worse.

Then there was the time I went for a ride on my Honda 750F after spending a summer afternoon drinking margaritas. Good judgement is the product of experience, they say, and experience is the product of bad judgement. When I came to my senses, I rewound the personal data recorder inside my head, realized how incredibly stupid I had been, and sold the bike the same day. I never rode a motorcycle again.

Speed Sells

I write a lot of stories about automobiles, usually cars powered by batteries and electric motors. Everyone wants to know about horsepower and torque. Acceleration to 60 mph (or 100 km/h if you live in a country that uses the metric system) is another stat that readers want to know about. The one stat I usually omit is top speed. Really, who cares if a car can go 200 km/h on the autobahn? It’s simply irrelevant to most drivers 99.9% of the time.

But manufacturers feel the need to hype quarter-mile times and top speeds because the information sells cars. Even people stuck in traffic on the 405 near LA can think to themselves, “My car could go 147.8 mph if all those thousands of cars ahead of me would just get out of the way.”

Big Brother

Lots of folks worry about their cars collecting data on them, but they do anyway. Over-the-air connectivity is a wonderful thing, but it allows whoever is on the other end of the data stream to know your exact location and speed at all times. The data can be used against you in court if your spouse’s attorney wants to prove you were at the No Tell Motel for 2 hours and 14 minutes on such and such a date instead of at work where you were supposed to be. Any claim to privacy we might have had, we willingly surrendered when we got our first smartphone. Convenience and connectedness trump privacy every time.

So why should we mind if our car refuses to go faster than 35 mph in a school zone, 50 mph on a residential street, or 80 mph on the superslab? (Okay, make that 90 mph in Montana, Wyoming, and Texas.) Is it a matter of free speech? Should people be allowed to let their right foot do the talking for them?

Really, people, why should innocent drivers die because some jackass in a Corvette decides going 156 mph on a city street is a good idea? Why should somebody with a new Tesla be able to wrap the car around a tree at over 100 mph literally within sight of their own driveway? Is it in the Constitution somewhere, something to do with inalienable rights and a well regulated militia? Is it in the Bible, the Koran, or the Dead Sea scrolls? Where, exactly, is it written that our cars must be capable exceeding normal and prudent speed limits any time we as drivers so choose?

The Takeaway

Yeah, I know, going fast is part of the fun of owning a car. Speed is a drug. It’s what spurred on Sterling Moss and Denis Jenkinson during the 1955 Mille Miglia as they piloted their Mercedes 300 SLR through the hills of Italy at an average speed of 99 miles per hour. It’s the essence of NHRA competition, Formula One, and a hundred amateur racing series around the world. But all of them are run on closed race courses or public roads closed during competition.

If you want to drive fast, sign up for an autocross or a track day event and have at it. I once got my lowly Saturn SC2 up to 100 mph on the front straight at Watkins Glen. It’s a memory I treasure. But I didn’t go anywhere near that fast on the way to the The Glen or on the way home. Should I have been able to if I chose to do so?

100 years ago, cars were rare and traffic was light. If drivers wanted to “open ‘er up and see what she can do,” the only risk was to themselves. But things have changed since then, thanks to Henry Ford and the new age of technology. Americans are killing themselves behind the wheel in record numbers. We have the means to limit how fast people drive. Is it time to put that ability to use to keep other fools like Henry Ruggs from killing innocent people because they are drunk or buzzed or having a bad hair day? Please, tell us what we should do to reduce the carnage on our roads.

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Written By

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. 3000 years ago, Socrates said, "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." Perhaps it's time we listened?


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