Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Critical life question: answered!

One of the little quirks of being American is that we live in a country with a pretend speed limit. We really have absolutely no idea how fast we can drive. Sure, we can read the numbers on the road signs that tell us the theoretical speed limit, but we're all aware that you're allowed to go faster -- in some places, much faster -- than the pretend number on the signs. Other drivers will get actively angry with you if you adhere closely to the posted speed limits. Police officers have actually pulled people over for driving exactly the speed limit; it's considered "suspicious behavior". They assume that if you're actually sticking with the posted speed, you must have something to hide.

The real speed limit, in practice, is the speed above which a police officer will write you a speeding ticket. It's a number which varies by a huge number of factors. It's close to the sign number in school zones and construction areas; it's much higher in nice neighborhoods if you're driving an expensive car; it jumps lower if you have out-of-state license plates; it's effectively zero if the police officer doesn't like the way you look. The lack of actual standards for acceptable speeds adds a bit of stress to the driving experience. You know you can go faster than the mythical number, but you have no idea how much faster.

No longer, though, at least in Indianapolis. Our mayor announced last week that we have a real speed limit now: the number on the sign plus five. Any faster than that, and officers can write you a ticket. I'm actually pretty happy about having the speed limit defined with numbers instead of wishful thinking. I don't know how much this will change things in practice, really; I suspect you can still drive your Porsche pretty fast before they'll ticket you, and I suspect that looking like you don't belong in a nice neighborhood will get you pulled over for going 5mph under the posted limit. Still, it's nice to know that the speed limit is defined. It's oddly comforting to know that if you're pulled over for driving the posted speed plus ten, you were forewarned; you can no longer complain about the nebulous speed limit. You'll know you were taking a risk driving over the real speed limit, whereas before, you might have thought you were below the getting-a-ticket speed....

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