Mr. Green Car: The cost of speeding

By Allen Penticoff
Free-lance Writer

The first speed limit was in the United Kingdom in 1861, set at 10 mph for “light locomotives,” as they called self-propelled vehicles at the time. Apparently, that was too fast for some, so they lowered the speed limit to 2 mph in urban areas and 4 mph in rural areas. However, it took a while before anyone was convicted of speeding. It is believed that Walter Arnold was first, in 1891, and fined a shilling for driving 8 mph.

In the U.S., Connecticut imposed a 12 mph limit in 1901; and since that time, speed limits have been imposed for a variety of reasons. Chief among those are to provide safety to the drivers, passengers, pedestrians and other motorists. While controlling traffic flow is a reason for a speed limit, safety is still usually the bottom line. The idea is to enforce reasonable speeds for a given road, conditions and expected traffic. The more traffic moves uniformly, the safer the driving.

In 1974, the Emergency Highway Conservation Act imposed the highly unpopular national 55 mph speed limit to deal with an Arab oil embargo that was strangling the supply of fuel to the United States and driving up fuel prices. While the intent of the law was to save on fuel by driving slower, it turned out the savings in fuel overall was quite small. Concern for the environment was not a big part of the reasoning. When the embargo was lifted and the need to conserve ended, the speed limit remained as various interests pushed the safety aspect of lower highway speeds. Eventually, the much-ignored limit was repealed with a collectively huge sigh of relief.

Having lived through all that, I am not going to advocate a return to a speed limit that is artificially low on our rural interstates. Indeed, too low a speed limit causes problems when it is not “reasonable” and is ignored. Then, too many people are driving at vastly different speeds, and this causes problems.

I am no stranger to speed. In my youth, I raced dirt bikes, owned fast street motorcycles and muscle cars, and did my fair share of youthful going too fast—believing I set a Freeport-to-Monroe record at one time, I’m ashamed to say. But nowadays, you are more likely to observe me driving slower than the rest of the traffic. Part of this is because it is what I drive. My old Volkswagens don’t really care to go fast, or simply cannot, so a laid-back, “it really doesn’t matter how long it takes” attitude comes with the territory. My sportiest car, my Mazda Miata, is quite capable of being driven fast, yet my wife and I derive the most pleasure in a top-down, back road drive going 45 to 55 mph, often pulling over to let someone in a hurry go by. Despite being slow, I still have people I have to pass. In general, I do my best to stay with the flow if there is much traffic—I don’t want to cause problems.

Some people are in a damn big rush, and they sometimes scare me. My recent experience is that young women are the worst at driving too fast, well in excess of the speed limit in town and swerving around other cars, at times while talking on their cell phones. It used to be us guys who were blamed for all the speeding, but I think gals are coming to be equally bad, if not worse, about this. I doubt our recent big hikes in speeding fines will have much of an impact. These speeding, sometimes reckless, drivers have bad habits, and the cost is not on their mind, just the self-centered concern about their need to be somewhere.

Everyone has had the experience of passing that slow vehicle that is blocking your progress, driving a bit aggressively to get around them—only to have them roll up next to you at the stoplight. I can assure you they are saving on gas and stress; you might consider emulating the way they drive rather than condemning it. For me, it is a situational thing—sometimes I’m them, sometimes I’m the aggressive one trying to be somewhere on time.

Safety issues aside, there is a big environmental cost to drag racing your way through town from stop light to stop light and driving well above the rural speed limits. The more you accelerate, the more fuel you’ll burn, and the more you’ll pollute the air. Period. No way around it. While some new cars have displays encouraging you to drive more gently, it won’t come until you decide that speeding is unnecessary in your life.

On the highway, even though the road is clear and perhaps your chance of getting a ticket is low, you might still want to drive the speed limit or lower. It does save on fuel and pollution. As a matter of physics—pushing a vehicle through the air creates resistance called drag. If you double your speed, say from 45 mph to 90 mph, the drag has squared. It also takes the square increase in power to double the speed. Thus, even small increases in speed, like 75 mph versus 65 mph, result in considerably more drag and fuel consumption. The “ideal” speed for engine efficiency and still moving along is 45 mph. Repeated analysis has shown that 10 mph reductions in speed limits generate 14 percent fewer accidents.

The costs of speeding can be summarized as: greater fuel expense, reduced engine life, more air pollution, squandering a precious resource, sending our money to foreign lands that don’t particularly like us, those big fat fines if caught, higher insurance rates, accident repairs, possible jail time, killing an innocent someone, killing yourself, stress and related medical issues. You can probably think of a few more. Turn on some fine tunes and chill out as you drive. It won’t matter that much when you get there, or if you save a couple minutes in racing across town, but it will matter to the planet and a lot of other people who depend on you to be safe and reasonable with your driving.

From the Sept. 22-28, 2010 issue