Human Nature and Speed Limits

Written by Gregory Monte.

The Post Office in Oradell, NJ

I pass through Oradell, NJ everyday on my two-hour commute from Pennsylvania to New Jersey.  Often, I stop at the local Post Office there to mail letters and packages.  Below are two pictures of that building which I took yesterday:

Oradell, NJ Post Office (2020)
Oradell, NJ Post Office (2020)

Do you see that gap in the row of hedges close to the entrance?  Several years ago that gap didn’t exist.  Instead, the row was continuous.  It started at the sidewalk near the road and continued right up to the corner of the building.  You can see this pretty well in this picture from 2015.

Oradell, NJ Post Office (2015)

You can also see in this picture that a metal pole with base was placed in between two of the hedges (right where the gap exists now).


The History of the Hedgerow

Because this is a traffic ticket defense blog, you may be wondering what on earth could possibly be my point.  What do hedges and post offices have to do with fighting tickets?

Bear with me on this …

To answer this, let me flesh out the history of the Oradel Post Office hedgerow.  First you need to understand that the parking lot is on the side of the building – you have to get around the hedgerow in order to reach the entrance.   For years, customers refused to take the long way around.  Instead they just cut through by walking between the hedge closest to the corner of the building and the next hedge (which was subsequently removed).  So many people did this that the hedge got damaged and a narrow dirt path appeared in between.

In an attempt to stop this clear violation of etiquette, the manager placed a metal pole with a broad base in that location (which you can see in the 3rd picture). 

Guess what?

It didn’t stop anyone.  They just pushed past the pole and made the path between even wider.

Finally, the manager gave up.  He removed the pole and cut down the damaged hedge.  


The 85th Percentile Rule

I was inspired to write about this after reading a comment in a letter to the editor written by National Motorist Association member Thomas McCarey (I introduced him in yesterday’s post which discussed speeding vehicles and accidents).  One part of his letter discussed the traffic engineering concept called 85th Percentile Speed:

“The 85th percentile speed is the speed at or below which 85 percent of the drivers travel on a road segment.  Motorists traveling above the 85th percentile speed are considered to be exceeding the safe and reasonable speed for road and traffic conditions.”

According to McCarey, states don’t want to set speed limits at the 85th percentile because then the police won’t be able to issue many tickets.  Why?  Because most people drive at or below this speed limit:

“… posting limits at the 85th Percentile Speed makes the job of the police, that is, to collect taxes for the government, very difficult indeed since 85% of drivers are not speeding.”

In other words, states post limits much lower than this percentile number on purpose – not for reasons of public safety but in order to collect “revenue.”

McCarey ultimately concludes that:

“Hunting down drivers with RADAR guns will not improve highway safety, and the unfair and unnecessary enforcement of too-low limits will foster contempt for law enforcement.”


Noncompliance and Contempt for Law Enforcement

This was the one line in his excellent letter that particularly caught my attention and inspired today’s post.  You see, governmental entities can pass all of the laws that they want – but voluntary compliance with these laws is another matter entirely. 

While certain laws are almost universally accepted (you can’t steal, murder, rape, etc.) many others are not (use of marijuana, paying taxes on cash receipts, jaywalking, reasonable speeding, etc.).  In the latter instances, people use their own judgement and decide accordingly.  If caught, they know that they have broken a law set by the state, but often resent the punishment extracted.

Just as hundreds of Oradell post office customers flouted the “hedgerow” rule because it went counter to their commonsense view of what should have been allowed, millions of drivers ignore speed limits which are arbitrarily set below what they judge as safe. But unlike that manager who finally acknowledged the reality of his customers’ actions, states do the opposite. They ramp up enforcement and issue more tickets to address a non-existent speeding “crisis.”


Pennsylvania’s Push for RADAR

Pennsylvania is the only state that doesn’t allow local police to use radar for speed enforcement. If you want to understand why they restricted its use, I encourage you to read my post from last April: Speeding Tickets in PA – More Reasonable Than Many Other States.

Unfortunately, some PA legislators are trying to change this. I will finish this post by quoting the final part of McCarey’s letter which specifically addresses this issue:

“There is now a coordinated push by the RADAR lobby to gain public acceptance for RADAR using the same old tactics: using the baseless urban legends of ‘SPEED KILLS!’ and ‘EVERYONE SPEEDS!’ to frighten the population into demanding that the politicians ‘do something.’ The something they are trying to do will only take hundreds of millions of dollars from drivers in Pennsylvania, not add to safety. RADAR guns should not be given to municipal police.”


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