|The Rule of Law
How You Get Snickers
From the Establishment
by Chad Dornsife
ts a holiday weekend and youre hurrying down the highway in your modern, late model car. Youre on U.S. 15 on the northern outskirts of Las Vegas or perhaps on U.S. 395 from Reno to Carson City. You hear a siren, and look into your rear view mirror. You gulp.
There, close behind you, are the lights of a Nevada Highway Patrol cruiser, flashing.
A moment later, after youve pulled onto the shoulder of the road and stopped, you hand your drivers license, registration and insurance card out the window to the trooper.
"What was the problem, officer?" you ask.
The mirrored lenses of his sunglasses look up from your papers. His mouth is grim.
"You were driving in a fashion entirely appropriate for current highway conditions, thus maximizing the safety of yourself and other drivers," he says, taking out his citation book. "So I have to write you a ticket."
You blink, astonished.
"Did I hear you right?" you ask haltingly. "Because I was maximizing safety, Im getting cited?""Yes," says the trooper. "Unfortunately for you, the safest speeds for long stretches of Nevada highways are often the speeds that we in the Nevada Highway Patrolworking with top bureaucrats at the Nevada Department of Transportationhave been able to successfully make illegal."
Now youre dumbfounded. Maybe this is a dream, you think. You look around the interior of the car and then back up at the trooper. Hes seen your confusion and something like compassion flickers over his face.
"Hey," he says, "dont think we dont appreciate your safe driving. If there werent folks like you out here driving appropriately for highway conditions, so that folks like me can give them tickets, theres a chance I wouldnt have been able to put my two kids through college. You want to see their pictures?"
You nod your head stiffly. Maybe youre having a nervous breakdownor maybe the trooper isand if you just go with the flow, everything can still work out okay in the end."See," he says, sticking the photos in your face, along with the citation, "thats Chuck and his sister Terri. And they owe their tuition to the federal incentive pay Ive been able to collect over the years, working weekends and holidays, ticketing safe drivers like you."
"Why do you keep calling me a safe driver," you finally blurt out, "when this ticket"you point at the cited NRS provision"is for speeding?"
The trooper looks up and down the road, and then back at you.
"Because the safest driving speed for this stretch of highway is faster than the speed-limit signs the Nevada Department of Transportation puts up."
"See," he says, fumbling in his shirt pocket, "its that way all over the state."
He pulls out a couple of small Snickers bars and leans against the car. Apparently youre going to be there for a while.
"My wifes brother works over in NDOT," he says, leaning down and offering you one. "And theyve got tons of official state speed surveys on roads and highways throughout Nevada that the top brass there just ignore."You declinepolitelythe proffered candy bar as the trooper continues.
"It really ticks off my brother-in-law and the other engineers there," he says. "They yammer about how all the research shows that most accidents arise from constrictions in traffic flow, and how for decades the entire profession has known that the safest roads are those with the smoothest free-flowing traffic."
Munching away, his mouth full, the trooper extends his left arm and points up the highway about 100 feet. A traffic-measurement cord stretches across the pavement there, with some kind of thingamajig attached at one end. A little on down the road past that first cord, you see another one across the road.
"See," he says, "lots and lots of research has clearly established that the safest speed for a given roadway is the speed that the 85th or 90th percentile of drivers judge the most comfortable, given the conditions of the road."
He seems to have noticed your eyes glaze over a little at "percentile," so he hastens to explain."No, no, percentiles are easy," he says. "Say that just a hundred cars travel down this road today, and the fastest car was going 95 and the slowest one was going 55. The 95-mph car would be the 100th percentile and the 55-mph car would be the 0 percentile. And to get the 90th percentile speed, you just count back 10 cars from the 95-mph car. The speed that car is going is the 90th percentile speed."
"So if you had a hundred-thousand cars on this road ," you begin.
"Thats right," he says, excited. "Youd just divide them all into 100 bins, as it were, sorting by speed."
Then the trooper pauses.
"You asked why I called you a safe driver," he says, "and Im explaining.
"Decades of research has shown that inside built-up areas, the safest speed for a given length of roadway is the speed that the 85th percentile of drivers choose to drive, given the conditions.
"Outside the cities, the traffic engineering professionals have shown, when the 85th percentile speed exceeds 50 mph, the safest speed shifts to the 90th percentile."
He leans down, smiling a big Pepsodent smile."I happen to have seen the speed studies for this length of road," he says, "and you, dear sir, were right on the 90th percentile!"
He sticks a big right hand into the car. "Congratulations!" he bellows jovially. "We in state government really appreciate you safe drivers!"
You shake his hand (there seems nothing better to do), but despite yourself, you frown.
"Whats the matter?" he asks.
"Well, officer," you say slowly, carefully, "what youve explained, in so many words, is how your agency and the state transportation department are in a conspiracy to make state highways less safesimply in order to be able to wring traffic fines out of safe drivers."He holds up a finger.
"Dont forget the Nevada Legislature," he says. "And the counties, cities, courts and the insurance companies. They all get a taste, too."
"But," you ask, "dont you well ever feel a bit bad or dishonest about participating in this uhh scam?"
He ponders the question for a moment.
"No. Not at all," he says. "Nobody confronts us with it, its never become a political issue in this state, and sobeing modern governmental officialswe simply compartmentalize."
"Suredont think about what were doing."
"But safety issues are for real. People die!"
"Have a Snickers."NJ
Chad Dornsife (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a member of the National Motorists Association and a long-time activist on highway safety issues. He lives in Zephyr Cove.