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No, It’s NOT Obvious

Back in August the editorial board of The Boston Globe published a diatribe about the stupidity of anyone who couldn’t see how wonderful the world would be if only we would reduce the speed limit back to 55 miles per hour.

OK, that wasn’t really what the editorial said. It was only implied. But their sanctimony annoyed me enough to prompt this response. It was submitted as a letter to the editor but not published.

8 August 2008

Re: your editorial, “Slower, Safer, Cheaper, Greener” (8 Aug)

It may be that dropping highway speeds from 75 mph to 55 mph would make our roads somewhat safer — although if we were truly determined to save as many lives as possible we might consider setting the speed limit everywhere to 25 mph, a speed at which almost no traffic deaths occur. That we are not willing to go that far implies that we have generally admitted what traffic safety zealots deny — that “safer” is not automatically “better”, that the cost in time and liberty of stricter speed regulation is not always and obviously worth the benefit in improved safety.

It may be that dropping highway speeds from 75 mph to 55 mph would reduce our overall fuel consumption — although the 25% reduction so often quoted assumes we are all consuming most of our fuel driving on the highway at 75 mph, not creeping along in rush-hour traffic or wending our way to and from the highway or on petty errands through city streets and back roads. Since, for most people, that is not the case, it’s a pretty safe bet that the actual saving available from a speed reduction is significantly less.

And it may be that dropping highway speeds from 75 mph to 55 mph would decrease our cash outlays for gasoline as it reduced our fuel consumption — but doing so would also increase our commuting time and, unless you consider your time worthless, that loss of time incurs a cost. Some fairly simple math can demonstrate that under your assumptions, and with gas standing at $4 per gallon and an efficiency of 22 mpg at the higher speed, you would need to value your time at less than $7.50 per hour — well below the minimum wage in Massachusetts — for that tradeoff to be cost effective.

It might be better if we all slowed down. Or it might not. Notwithstanding the surety and sanctimony with which you have proclaimed otherwise, on all counts “Slower, Safer, Cheaper, Greener” is a matter of judgement — and a bit of faith — not of demonstrable fact.

(C) Copyright 2008, Augustus P. Lowell

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