New traffic enforcement cameras 390.
(photo credit: Public Security Ministry)
The Traffic Police recently installed a large number of automatic speed cameras
on highways throughout the country.
The cameras measure speed, identify
the automobile, and anyone caught speeding is sent a ticket by mail. In the
current pilot period the ticket is only a warning, but soon people will be sent
The move renewed an ancient and international debate about the
true purpose of speed limits. Briefly, there are three understandings:
official explanation for speed limits is that going faster than the speed limit
is dangerous. Public safety demands that people drive no faster than 90
kilometers per hour, or whatever the speed limit is, and speed traps and fines
are necessary to enforce the regulations.
• A somewhat less generous
explanation is that speeding tickets are a “speed tax.” Want to go under 90 kph?
Want to go faster? Be prepared to open your wallet. This
explanation is sometimes viewed as cynical, but perhaps it is not. After all,
governments do need revenue, and they have to tax something.
A speed tax
is probably both Pigovian (meaning that it taxes, and thus discourages,
something that we would like to discourage in any case) and progressive (since
speeding itself uses more gas, fast cars are more expensive, and highly paid
people presumably consider traveling a more expensive waste of time than the
• The least generous explanation is that speed limits are a
license to confiscate money. This argument claims that everybody speeds all the
time, and the traffic laws basically empower the police to pounce on some poor
innocent victim anytime they happen to need additional revenue.
the arguments are not mutually exclusive. A speed limit in a school zone may
well be a safety imperative, whereas a speed limit of 55 miles per hour on a
modern highway for modern cars may have little safety justification.
does the research say about this question? Opponents frequently cite a 1985
article by Charles Lave that did not find any consistent relationship between
maximum speed and number of fatal accidents. Lave found that the key variable
was the variability of travel speed. Others suggested that low speed limits on
well-built highways might encourage drivers to use less safe roads, thus
defeating the purpose of the limits.
Proponents cite more recent
research, such as a 2004 World Health Organization study that showed speed
limits make a major contribution to limiting traffic fatalities. A study
published very recently by Arthur van Benthem of Stanford University finds that
a 10 mph speed-limit increase on highways leads to 34 percent to 60% more fatal
accidents – a major factor in the author’s conclusions that speed limits are
good public policy.
Note that these findings are not contradictory. Speed
limits don’t necessarily reduce speed variability, but they can. And the fact
that limits reduce fatalities doesn’t automatically recommend them; after all,
if the speed limit were zero, no one would be killed on the highways. But that
would hardly be an attractive bargain.
My take is that speed limits are
beneficial, but on very safe modern highways they are often too low. A 55 mph
speed limit on a modern superhighway could easily be interpreted as a revenue
measure, whereas it seems prudent not to exceed 70 mph, which is the limit in
some places in the United States.
In the Israeli case, the police
emphasized that the new cameras were not placed in locations with the greatest
number of speeders (as revenue considerations would dictate) but rather in
locations with the greatest number of documented speeding-related accidents. So
at least this round of “speed traps” seems like a worthwhile pilot
firstname.lastname@example.org Asher Meir is research director at the
Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, an independent institute in the Jerusalem
College of Technology (Machon Lev).
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