(By contributor John Bleimaier)
Back in the 1950s and early ‘60s, owners of sports cars from England and the rest of Europe commonly flashed their headlights after encountering each other on the road. It was a gesture of good will towards a fellow foreign car owner who understood the same rare, oddball passion you did. Somebody who got it and understood that truly spirited-feeling automobiles came in packages less than 3,000 pounds. And the headlight flash was also gesture of solidarity, a nod of encouragement that said keep the faith and persevere through prejudices and misunderstandings routinely issued in a landscape where fins, V8 engines, chrome, and longer-lower-wider American cars were the accepted norm. To put it in British terms, it was “Cheerio” and “Muddle through, old chap” in one bowl of soup.
In those days, even owners of more mainstream German cars felt sufficiently unique that they demonstrated a salute upon seeing another Volkswagen or Mercedes-Benz. Things have changed. Today, the United States automobile market is no longer dominated by Detroit marques, and the number one best-selling car model in the United States hasn’t been an American one since the mid-1990s. With the exception that brands “new” to the U.S. market (think Mini, Fiat, or Tesla) experience during their first model year on the roads, new cars of today rarely inspire a headlight flash between strangers who happen to drive the same type of motorcar.
But the headlight flash lives on – now, mostly as a gesture to alert oncomers of police speed traps. While it’s an easy and anonymous way to take a stand against tyranny, the practice does raise an ethical and perhaps even a legal issue. Is it proper to help others to avoid the penal consequences of their actions? Does thwarting the purpose of constabulary radar constitute an obstruction of justice? It makes sense that the friendly flash should not be considered morally wrong because it does not, in fact, constitute any offense against the public order.
To intentionally hide a fugitive from justice goes against the preachings of law and order. To trip up a police officer who is pursuing a suspected malefactor is obstruction of justice. However, to dissuade a would-be burglar from robbing the bank is not an infraction. Similarly, if we see a speeding automobile and flash our lights to encourage the driver to slow down we are transgressing no injunction of morality or law. On the contrary, we are serving the best interests of society.
I am persuaded of the need for fixed speed limits in crowded residential or commercial areas and of the usefulness of suggested maximum speeds on many highways and country roads. That said, much of our speed enforcement is simply unpredictable and subject to whim. Why do we rarely encounter speed traps near schools, parks or congested shopping areas where excessive speed actually presents the greatest risk of harm? Instead, radar and laser patrol cars are most often concealed on stretches of road where your or I could safely drive above arbitrarily established limits. Considering that, it becomes harder to believe that traffic enforcement is actually related to protection of the public, because revenue generation from fines appears to be the motivating factor.
Such a state of affairs encourages public cynicism and contempt for the regulatory process. Recently in these parts I have encountered the establishment of denominated “safety zones” where fines for infractions are doubled. Once again, let me emphasize that I can see the logic of establishing higher fines for those who break the law near schools or in construction zones where workers are present. However, the so called “safety zones” seem to differ not a wit from the adjoining unsafe areas. In general, if a neighborhood is particularly dangerous on account of short sight distances, road conditions or congestion, the appropriate remedy is a lower speed limit. Randomly established “safety zones” just reinforce a perception that traffic enforcement is a rip off.
The logic of doubling the fines for speeding on the interstate highways simply does not make sense either. Is it twice as blameworthy to drive 85 miles per hour on a wide open limited access highway than it is to drive 45 miles per hour down a busy city block? What about speeding tickets on limited access highways?
The enforcement of speed limits on the interstates is purely arbitrary. These roads were originally designed well over a half century ago for safe 85 mph cruising in 1950s American automobiles. The average vehicle of today on most straight, non-winding highways in the United States is usually traveling over 75 miles per hour. With tire pressure monitoring systems, electronic stability control, anti-lock brakes, and sophisticated suspension system designs, the average vehicle of today is far more capable of safely handling unforseen incidents than those of any previous era. that may arise, and doing it safely. – and quite capable of doing so. Yet the official limit now in the 21st century is only 65 miles per hour.
I am acutely aware of this every time I take my 1965 Mercedes 190D on interstate roads. Because of the gearing of this classic starship, it is substantially quieter at 65 miles per hour than at 75. Yet driving at the posted speed limit in the far right hand lane still brings significant risk of being rear-ended by a minivan in cruse control mode. In clear weather and with moderate traffic, it can be argued that the average speeder is really operating his or her automobile in a perfectly prudent manner. The road surface is smooth. The right-of-way is a straight line to the horizon. Yet randomly such safe drivers are subjected to steep fines and the assessment of costly points if they just happen to get snared by a random radar trap. Of course, excessive speed is dangerous during inclement weather. Yet have you ever seen speed enforcement when it’s raining or snowing?
Those who belong to car clubs and those in the industry are the folks for whom the automobile and its proper operation is important. We care about our vehicles and about the environment in which we operate them. Let us speak out against capricious speed limits, inequitable enforcement policies, and illogical fine structures. Let us also lobby for the removal of speed humps on the road which damage suspension systems and impede the expeditious movement of emergency vehicles. And always, let us support fair and sensible traffic laws. The ones which actually do protect the public.
And, when you see a hapless fellow driver racing toward a speed trap… flash!
(Contributor John Bleimaier is an attorney at law, active Mercedes-Benz club officer, and automotive journalist for The Star magazine.)