Sunday, July 3, 2011

Freedom Doesn't Mean You Have to Be a Dick: Driving

There's a side character in Jonathan Franzen's Freedom who won't let anyone pass on the highway. It's a revealing anecdote of America's hyper-competitive culture, and reflective of many similar driving experiences I've had. Contrast this to my experiences driving in Germany, where cars move on the autobahn like it's a well-orchestrated ballet. The left lane is left open unless you're passing, and slower cars almost always move immediately to the right. It's a social norm that's rigidly followed for the greater good. And while there are dicks who drive in Germany, there aren't as many who take a passing car as a personal challenge to their manhood.

Part of this American reluctance to let people pass may be explained by the unnecessarily low (and often ignored speed limits). People are probably keeping the faster drivers going accorded to the posted speed limits, or at what they regard as the appropriate speed. But there are better mechanisms for enforcing the law, like cameras. And again, Germany should serve as a good example. In the more congested ares and on the smaller highways and city streets, Germany has a speed limit that's strictly enforced. After being caught by a camera, I got a 25 euro ticket for going 2 km too fast. I was annoyed, but 25 euros isn't too bad. It's an efficient system. They let you drive as fast as you want in certain areas. But where there's a speed limit, it's there for a reason and you better follow it or else a camera will catch you and give you a reasonable fine.

I can think of many Americans who would lose their shit over getting a ticket in the same circumstances: a camera catching me for going about 1 mph over the limit. There was even a ballot proposal in my hometown that preemptively banned the use of red light cameras at intersections despite the increased safety they offer. That second link is a good indicator of the craziness we're dealing with as a nation. People are somehow claiming red light cameras increase red light running. That's like claiming more firefighters lead to more fires. We all know fewer people would run red lights if they got a ticket every time they did. People make up facts to win arguments, but it's insane how easily accepted these crazy facts are in our country and how they can lead to unwise public policy. I now obey the German speed limit a lot better than I used to because I know there's a good chance I'll get a fine if I don't.

So move over when someone wants to go faster than you. Put red light and speed cameras up to increase traffic safety. And make speed limits more rational, because most people go over 55 or 65 mph and enforcing the law when someone is going with the flow of traffic seems arbitrary. Simple steps to a better society really. Maybe then we could use the revenue to fix potholes, put in better mass transit options, or just have safer roads. Or maybe we can pretend red light and speed cameras increase accidents, lead to socialism, and take us away from the laissez-faire paradise where optimal traffic safety is achieved through drivers acting in their perceived self-interest.

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