Two years ago, I drove an electric Smart Fortwo from Manhattan to Westchester and back. The car was electronically limited to 65 mph—to extend battery life—and it made me into a surprisingly aggressive driver. I did everything I could to stay at 65 mph. I cut people off. I ducked into tiny gaps in traffic, and I tailgated people. If I let the speed dip below 65 mph, I lost time that I could never make back up.
A similar thing happens on long trips. People drive as fast as they think they can get away with—say, 75 mph—and then stick to it that speed at all costs—in heavy rain or fog, or at night. Again, if they dip below that speed, they cannot make-up the time they lost—even if road conditions improve.
The EU is searching for ways to reduce the 30,000 annual deaths on european roads. A recent rumor had it that there are plans to use satellites or cameras to inform cars of the speed limit and have cars automatically apply the brakes if they exceed a road's speed limit (Thankfully, the rumor wasn't true). Assuming that the technology even exists at a price that could make this feasible, I'm not convinced that electronically limiting cars to 70 mph would make the roads safer. If anything, it would make them more dangerous. I believe that limiting cars to 70 mph would make drivers more aggressive, because they would avoid deviating from 70 mph in order to keep from losing time.
Ever been stuck in the left lane lane behind someone who wouldn't change lanes to let you by? Thank the speed limit. Lane hoggers won't pull over, either because they're already going the speed limit, or because they're afraid of losing time that they can't make up. Limiting all cars to 70 mph would exacerbate this problem wildly.
How would you drive if there were no speed limits? On most sections of an empty highway at 70 mph, I feel comfortable making a phone call. Everything happens slowly, and journey times are very long—even a 300-mile trip takes nearly four and a half hours. Without speed limits—and on dry highways during the day—I might drive 95-120 mph. That was the normal pace when I lived in Germany. Mind you, I didn't text, talk on the phone, or read a map. I just drove at a pace I was comfortable with considering the conditions, the traffic, and the car. And I'd save an hour and half on a 300-mile trip. I'd stay as far right as practicable, but if I were in the left lane and anyone came up behind me, I'd make sure to let them past, knowing full well that I'd be able to make up any time I lost with a gentle squeeze of the throttle pedal somewhere down the road.
You know what, EU? Seventy mph is simply too slow to keep drivers engaged in the driving process. Want to stop drivers from texting, reading, and applying makeup while behind the wheel? You need to allow them to drive. People need to drive fast enough that driving requires attention. Fast enough that they simply won't have enough extra attention to dedicate to these distracting tasks. Given the choice, who would dawdle along applying makeup rather than speeding up and applying makeup properly in the parking lot? Allowing people to drive at a natural pace when conditions are good means they won't drive uncomfortably fast through fog and rain, hog the left lane, or smear makeup on their faces as they meander down the road.
Top picture and story from Daily Mail