Are Speed Limits on Our Highways Truly Necessary?


Photo courtesy of The Local Germany

The western world’s general populace tends to perceive the United States as a society that is excessively dependent on the automobile for transportation, mostly due to the prevalence of suburban areas around American cities, a lower population density than places such as Europe, China, or Japan, and the desire of the American people to be independent from the state with regards to getting where they need to go. Because of these aforementioned factors, which motivate us to use cars as our preferred means of transportation, one would assume that Americans have mastered the art of the automobile in comparison to our European and East Asian counterparts.

However, this does not seem to be the case among our licensed drivers. The United States has suffered from a motorway mortality rate consistently higher than other developed nations. The blame for this is often pinned on the overall irresponsibility of the average American driver while using their car on the highway, especially with regards to speed. In 2020, Eben Weiss wrote an article for Outside urging Americans to quit their habit of driving 5 miles per hour over their local speed limit, citing data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration which found that around a quarter of traffic deaths in 2018 were related to speeding. Mr. Weiss included a quote from George Carlin to describe the average American’s mentality towards speed on US motorways: “Anyone driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone driving faster than you is a maniac.”

This is where the necessity of speed limits in the first place can be called into question. Speed limits are the maximum speed at which a vehicle may legally travel on a particular stretch of road. It is safe to assume that most drivers on America’s highways obey these laws, but there are always the obvious outliers who are driving far too quickly or far too slowly. Highway patrol does not care to arrest those driving 5 miles an hour above or below the speed limit because they do not prevent the highways from functioning cohesively. My question to Mr. Weiss is this: speeding certainly kills–but should we blame those only going 5 miles per hour over, or should we hold those going 20 or 30 miles per hour over accountable?

I would have to choose the latter answer. If we abolish speed limits on our highways, we will be able to see who is driving irresponsibly from a clearer lens. There will be no arbitrary measure by which we are deciding if somebody is driving too fast or not. Instead, it will be easier to identify the drivers who are visibly putting others at risk by driving too quickly, slowly, or otherwise irresponsibly. Increased patrol training would also prove itself to be ineffective; even if the enforcers prove themselves to be excellent public servants, it cannot factor out the mentality of every American driver. There will still be people driving five over, and there will still be people driving thirty over (the latter deserves to be pulled over). Simply punishing those who do not go with the traffic flow, no matter how fast or slow it is, is a far more efficient way of weeding out those who do not deserve their license.

Moreover, a highway system that ostensibly lacks a limit on speed can indeed work safely for the United States. Across the Atlantic, there is a famous model which we could follow in the German Autobahn. On open stretches of road, the Autobahn has no enforced speed limit whatsoever. Simultaneously, Germany has a far lower fatality rate on its motorways than the United States does. This is the result of Germany strictly enforcing driving laws relating to alcohol, drivers’ education, and safety standards for vehicles. There is no reason as to why we should not test the capability of Americans to drive as safely as the Germans are able to, especially considering how American society has proven itself to be far more dependent on the automobile.

The future safety of the American highway system is not dependent on how fast one’s car can go, or how hard a car might be to drive. It ultimately comes down to the responsibility of the driver, which can be measured by ensuring that  they actually deserve their license, and that they do not disrupt the general flow of traffic when driving on the highway. Speed limits are certainly not helping us in that regard, and they ought to be abolished throughout the U.S. Highways and Interstates, to be replaced by punishment for driving significantly above or below the average speed as determined by radar.