The Electric Commentary

Thursday, September 15, 2005

The Living Speed Limit

This is the first subsection of Illinois's speed limit law, 625 ILCS 5/11‑601 (a).

(a) No vehicle may be driven upon any highway of this State at a speed which is greater than is reasonable and proper with regard to traffic conditions and the use of the highway, or endangers the safety of any person or property. The fact that the speed of a vehicle does not exceed the applicable maximum speed limit does not relieve the driver from the duty to decrease speed when approaching and crossing an intersection, approaching and going around a curve, when approaching a hill crest, when traveling upon any narrow or winding roadway, or when special hazard exists with respect to pedestrians or other traffic or by reason of weather or highway conditions. Speed must be decreased as may be necessary to avoid colliding with any person or vehicle on or entering the highway in compliance with legal requirements and the duty of all persons to use due care.


This may appear to you as a straightforward set of rules on sensible driving, and certainly, some justices would agree with you. They would say that this statute tells us to drive responsibly, taking care to notice the environment around us, not exceed the speed limit, and perhaps, drive even slower than the limit in some instances. These "strict constructionists" have some appeal with conservatives and libertarians, but is this really the best way to read the law?

After all, cars have existed for quite some time now, and most of the ideals captured in this statue are a bit outdated. Shouldn't the law conform with a more popular sentiment? Shouldn't the law have more public support? Why are we bound to rely on the interpretations of old, retired, white men, who wrote the laws regarding cars before cruise control! Does that make any sense?

I believe that the drafters of this statute left it intentionally vague. They realized that they did not know everything at the time, and that driving would evolve and change over time. And with these changes, we must read their wisely-crafted document using our modern senses. For instance, this sentence:

The fact that the speed of a vehicle does not exceed the applicable maximum speed limit does not relieve the driver from the duty to decrease speed when approaching and crossing an intersection, approaching and going around a curve, when approaching a hill crest, when traveling upon any narrow or winding roadway, or when special hazard exists with respect to pedestrians or other traffic or by reason of weather or highway conditions.


Is this really still applicable with today's modern cars? Anti-lock breaks and air bags have made safely achieving higher speeds a reality. High performance tires make accelerating around a curve a joy, and high intensity halogen headlights allow for better performance on narrow country roads. Weather is less of a factor as well. Really, in these modern times, our governments primitive concerns for our safety are severely misplaced.

And, as this is the case, doesn't it call into question the wisdom of speed limits in general. Later, in section (d), the statute reads:

(d) Unless some other speed restriction is established under this Chapter, the maximum speed limit outside an urban district for any vehicle of the first division or a second division vehicle designed or used for the carrying of a gross weight of 8,000 pounds or less (including the weight of the vehicle and maximum load) is (1) 65 miles per hour (i) for all highways under the jurisdiction of the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority and (ii) for all or part of highways that are designated by the Department, have at least 4 lanes of traffic, and have a separation between the roadways moving in opposite directions and (2) 55 miles per hour for all other highways, roads, and streets.


If the stated rationale for these limits is no longer applicable, as is the case in section (a), should these limits still be enforced as law? Clearly not. Moreover, the primitive thinking of this legislature is on display even in the specific limits, with their 8,000 pound weight limit. With today's SUVs and Hummers, the average person can easily carry that much weight safely at higher speeds. The 8,000 pound limit is a relic of balloon tires and tail fins. It seems almost quaint, really.

We can also learn from our European neighbors across the Atlantic. The Germans abandoned speed limits on their autobahns years ago, which made sense with their well crafted automobiles. It hardly made sense to put a limit on the performance of a high end German car, and as America has made gains in the quality of the autos that it produces, as well as an increase in quality imported cars, following their lead on the law is only sensible.

Finally, it is entirely possible that the drafters of this law meant to create a penumbra of other driving duties that they had not yet contemplated. After all, they wrote that:

Speed must be decreased as may be necessary to avoid colliding with any person or vehicle on or entering the highway in compliance with legal requirements and the duty of all persons to use due care. (Emphasis added.)


What could they have meant by this "due care?" In this era of road rage, perhaps they meant to create a culture of politeness on the road. It may be illegal to give someone the finger, put a sticker of "Calvin peeing on a Chevy" on the back window, or blast loud rap music with the windows down.

Perhaps we should simply be required to use our cell phones to dial 911 when we witness an accident. Maybe, as we understand the risks of global warming more completely, this clause commands us to buy hybrids and other fuel efficient vehicles.

These options all require study, but I am confident that the state judiciary will be able to sift through the various options and arrive at a modern, sensible interpretation of this statute, hopefully involving several balancing tests.

While laws against speeding are clearly archaic, the wise men who drafted these laws left it up to future generations to see to it that the spirit of their great statute lives on. It may not protect the victims of speeding anymore, but it should protect those that need protecting, be they victims of global warming, road rage, or some other calamity that we have yet to discover.

Having a living speed limit is the only way to attain progressive vehicular change.

Except for changing the law, of course.

But that's just silly.

4 Comments:

  • It's a limit, not a choice.

    By Blogger dhodge, at 8:11 AM  

  • What is so bad about a law that says drive safely under the conditions? Basically, police can pull you over for being reckless. It seems to be more of a advisory law, just to warn/lecture people. Seriously, I take this law as meaning people shouldn't drive 65 mph on an offramp in a blizzard. Weather is still a factor, roads still get slippery when it first starts to rain. The point of slowing down for an intersection or hill is for reaction time, which has remained the same despite car improvements.
    As for speed limits themselves, well they should be higher in many places, but without some fear of them many people would drive 130mph everyplace. The threat of this is the disparity of speed between two cars on the road.
    That said, those of you who've seen me drive, consider the source. I could drive safely save hours off my trips if I didn't have to worry about being pulled over (lots of straight highway, few cars). In summary, this like many laws, are for those idiots who ruin things for the rest of us, but someone does need to do something about those idiots.

    By Anonymous Scott H, at 1:53 PM  

  • Scott, I think you missed the point. Either that or I missed the point of your commennt.

    dhodge got it though.

    By Blogger PaulNoonan, at 1:55 PM  

  • Oh, I definitely missed the point. I get it now I feel pretty stupid.
    I jumped to a conclusion (that Dan just got a speeding ticket and was ranting) and didn't really bother to read attentively.

    If you want, you can delete my other post (or keep it up so you can laugh at me).

    By Anonymous Scott H, at 4:43 PM  

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