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More on the Moderate Violation of Speeding Laws

Ilya Somin has a thoughtful response to my post on the violation of speeding laws. My main point was that speeding laws are a special type of law and that people’s violation of such laws is not a good test of whether people believe that it is immoral to violate the law.

Ilya characterizes my argument as claiming that the “duty to obey the speed limit is a special case because the government usually doesn’t enforce speed limits against moderate violations.” But that only captures part of my point. Let me elaborate.

In San Diego, where I live, the highway speed limit is generally 65 mph. The police generally do not ticket unless one is traveling faster than 75, thereby providing motorists with a 10 mph buffer. It is not merely that the police do not ticket for speeds lower than 75. I believe that the government does not believe sub 75 speeds are wrong nor do most people believe that such speeds are wrong. The reason that the government sets the speed limit at 65 rather than 75 is their belief that, if the speed limit were set at 75, people would drive up to 85 mph. Thus, they set it at 65, expecting and allowing people to drive up to 75.

Now, one might wonder why the government operates this system. Why not set a 75 mph speed limit and announce that it will be strictly enforced? I am not sure of the answer. Perhaps it would be difficult to prove speeding violations of 1 mph over the speed limit. Perhaps the government believes people would start to drive at 75 mph, would find it difficult to not occasionally exceed the speed limit, and then be annoyed when they received a ticket. The reason does not really matter for my argument. The point is that the system is set up with the 10mph buffer in order to allow people to speed up to 75mph.

Imagine an alternative system where there were monitors along the highways that electronically gave out tickets for exceeding the speed limit. In that world, people would know that they would have to drive below the speed limit to ensure that they did not occasionally exceed it and receive a ticket. In that world, the speed limit might be set at 77 and motorists would drive at between 72 and 75 to avoid getting tickets. In that world, violations of the 77 mph speed limit would be “real” violations of the law. One could then test the question whether people believed exceeding the 77 mph speed limit was morally wrong.

Ilya also writes:

Consider what happens when the government begins to enforce speed limit laws more aggressively, for example by setting up speed traps and catching unsuspecting motorists for violations that would previously have been allowed to slide. Do people say that now that the police are enforcing the speed limit laws to the hilt, we have a stronger obligation to obey them? Obviously not, the usual public reaction to such stepped-up enforcement is anger.

As should now be clear, the public’s reaction here is entirely to be expected. The norm established by the government was to allow a 10 mph buffer. When the government changes that norm, without announcing it, the government has behaved improperly and people are appropriately annoyed. By contrast, if the government announced the strict enforcement of the 75 mph speed limit or installed the monitors, people might like or dislike the new system, but their reactions would be based on different considerations.

Ilya makes a variety of other points relating to illegal immigration, but I was not addressing that subject and therefore I will put them to the side. My point is that speeding laws are a special case and we should not generalize from them.

Update: Ilya Somin has a new post responding to this one.  While I am tempted to respond, I do not want to bore readers, so let me just say the following.  I don’t think Ilya’s first point really responds to my most recent argument.  As to his second point, there are alternative explanations for why people are opposed to traffic cameras (and whether they are opposed to them is largely beside the point).

Reader Discussion

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on April 20, 2014 at 12:46:22 pm

In Arizona there is a law requiring you to drive with the flow of traffic as a safety reason. This is practical recognitiion of factors apart the posted speed limit. By default the government is requiring motorists to modify the law on an as needed basis.

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JD Bryant
on April 20, 2014 at 14:16:42 pm

If we have a law and do not enforce it, is it still a law? Or is it only a suggestion?

If we have a Constitution and do not provide sufficient means to enforce its obligations and limits on the actions of the government it forms, are those obligations and limits laws, or are they only suggestions? Perhaps the law is only defined by the points at which the people become sufficiently outraged when officeholders ignore Constitutional writings. If that is the case we can safely predict that American government will dissolve into despotism at the rate in which despots can violate the Constitution without driving the people into outrage.

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Scott Amorian

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.