Following the Rules Part III: Why Have Speed Limits?

In yesterday’s post, I talked a little bit about how it is common in the Italian culture to ask themselves why a rule exists before following it, rather than following it simply because it is a rule. That got me thinking about a conversation I had a few years back with a couple of American friends of mine, about speed limits and speed traps.

They were visiting me in Italy, and I was driving them around in my Grandmother’s car. We were chatting about this and that, when I suddenly slowed down.

“Why did you slow down?” They asked

“Well, because I just passed a sign saying that a speed camera was coming up. And there it is, see the little sign with the cartoon of a traffic cop? That means there is a camera over there. I’m not sure of the limit here, so I’m just going to be on the safe side”.

They started laughing uproariously in the back seat. I was confused, why is that funny? If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather not get a ticket. When they finally calmed down a little, they spluttered “but…. but…. that defeats the entire purpose of a speed trap! You have signs over the cameras?! That’s hilarious! How does anyone ever get a ticket!”

I had never thought about it before. Does it defeat the purpose of having speed cameras, if you’re going to signpost them? Italy is certainly not the only country which does this, other European countries signpost their speed cameras too. Then I realized, it depends on what you think the purpose of speed cameras, or speed limits, is.

So, why do speed limits exist? And why is it important to check if people are obeying the speed limit?

In principle, I think we can agree that speed limits exist for safety reasons. It is safer to travel under a certain speed in a populated area, under a different speed on a highway, under a different speed on a mountain road, and so on. So, given that, why should speed cameras exist?

Should they exist to encourage people to respect the speed limit, or should they exist to punish people for breaking the rules?

If you think the purpose is to get as many people to slow down as possible, then signposting them is your best bet. Even if people like to speed no one likes to get a ticket, so in spite of wanting to break the rules, they will slow down on that particular stretch of road, at least. Sure you’ll make less money off of tickets, but essentially you will have achieved the goal of getting people to slow down.

If you think the purpose is to punish people for disobeying the law, then certainly signposting them is counterproductive, because people will see the sign, slow down and not get punished. Not signposting them will allow you to collect more money in tickets, but you will be collecting more money precisely because more people are speeding on that road, meaning more people are driving in an unsafe manner on that road, meaning your argument that “speed limits exist to keep people safe” starts to sound a little weak. Hiding the speed cameras gives the impression, at least to me, that you are far less concerned with keeping people safe than you are punishing rule breakers.

How about you? Do you think speed cameras should be signposted?


  1. Lofty says

    Speed limits: Transport engineers attempt to calculate an acceptable cost/benefit ratio between crashes and time taken to travel a particular stretch of road. If crash rates rise the first thing to drop is the speed limit.

    Speed camera warning signs are cheap and allow the authorities to trick some people to drive at the limit. Most people rate their risk of crashing significantly lower than do the transport engineers, so adding a financial risk helps sway the argument. Mind you, in Australia the speed camera warnings are often a portable sign parked just past the camera car, in a sort of “told ya to slow down” reminder. The flashes are now infra red so a sign will let you know a speed fine might be in the mail.

    In a complex environment many drivers miss seeing a speed limit sign or a warning sign so a fine in the mail might just help them to be more vigilant. Near my home, there is a set of traffic lights at the start of the local freeway. After a 500m stretch of 60km/h limit it suddenly goes to 100km/h unlike the traditional transition via a short 80km/h bit. More than half the drivers pass me when I do 60 on the first bit. A friend of mine even asked me where the 80 sign was as everybody drove at least that fast. He was dumbfounded when I explained that there was no 80 zone and most drivers were speeding. Every so often a camera is placed there and rakes in tens of thousands in fines , and they can do it all again in a weeks time. Plenty of drivers operate on autopilot and are often surprised at what happens to them. I’m much too stingy to want to give my hard earned to the government for no good reason so I tend to be very observant.

  2. naturalcynic says

    Lofty started to allude to another possible reason: speed traps could also be a “profit center” for police. Set the fines for speeding at the intersection of where the police department can make some serious cash versus the point that people will squawk and fight in court and/or raise significant political objections to the relevant authority.
    There have been records of cases where local police in some small towns have done this in the past, almost exclusively to out-of-towners just passing through.

    • thoughtsofcrys says

      But that was kind of my point as well. If the “point” is profit to the police, then sign posting them does defeat the purpose of speed cameras, but are you going to find a government that will admit that speed limits only exist so as to create an extra tax on drivers? Unlikely

      • sonofrojblake says

        are you going to find a government that will admit that speed limits only exist so as to create an extra tax on drivers? Unlikely

        If it is a tax it’s one that by definition only ever gets paid by stupid, inattentive drivers. Who’s not in favour of that tax?

          • sonofrojblake says

            The tax on alcohol doesn’t do anything about lung cancer or securities fraud. Are all your opinions based on non-sequiturs?

          • says

            I suppose I should have thought about an explanation of why I hate that type of thinking. Here in Texas you just don’t get stuck with the fine for speeding, states and cities have started adding additional fees It’s is not too damaging if you are wealthy, but poorer people get hit with more interest and penalties if they cannot pay immediately. And governments will choose what laws to enforce that will be easier and generate more money, and ignore those that would take more work and give a lower return. Thus my comment about tailgating, which is a real problem here in Texas.

          • sonofrojblake says

            poorer people get hit with more interest and penalties if they cannot pay immediately

            You appear to have missed the point that the charges you are referring to are entirely voluntary – nobody, rich or poor, is forced to pay them. You choose to, and you can choose not to. If you make it easy for the government to collect your money, you cannot then criticise them for doing so.

            Tailgating is an entirely separate and unrelated problem which could be solved overnight by making driving into the back of another vehicle punishable with a year in prison and the immediate destruction of the car. See how much space people would leave if that rule was enforced.

  3. sonofrojblake says

    that defeats the entire purpose of a speed trap!

    That speaks of a particularly nasty attitude.

    Speed cameras should be signposted. I have zero sympathy for anyone who complains about receiving a speeding ticket – only volunteers are issued with speeding tickets.

    Speed traps in the civilised world are usually set up in positions where there have already been incidents, perhaps even deaths. Thus, the intention is always to get drivers to slow the F**K DOWN and minimise future injuries. In the UK when speed cameras were first brought in, it was fairly well known that only relatively few of them had film in (yes, it was that long ago), because it was expensive to run them. But people still usually slowed down, just in case. Later, the grey boxes the cameras were mounted in were painted bright yellow to make them more visible. Our concern is for the people who might suffer if a driver were speeding.

    It seems the Americans in your story come from a place where speed traps are set up in positions where drivers are known to speed, and there’s no intention to protect vulnerable pedestrians, cyclists or other drivers. Screw them, seems to be the idea, let them take their chances, let them be hurt or killed – there’s money to be made, and if the drivers slowed down, how would we make any money? What a horrible society, to have such an attitude as a norm.

  4. philhoenig says

    I think the idea of not signposting speed cameras – not that I’m convinced by it – is that if there are no signs, speed cameras could be anywhere and so people will stick to the speed limit no matter where they go.

    In Australia speed cameras aren’t always signposted, but many drivers flash their indicators to alert oncoming traffic about them. Is this something that happens in other countries?

    • thoughtsofcrys says

      I think the lights flashing is a universal sign of careful! Cops ahead!

      When it comes to the argument you mentioned before, I would reply that you can’t have it both ways. You can’t say that not signposting cameras means more speeding tickets issued and, at the same time, not signposting cameras means more people obeying the speed limit overall. Those two scenarios are mutually exclusive. As to which one is true, I would like to see a study on that. Take a country, or county within a country, which never signposted cameras before, then suddenly starts to do so. What happens? Are there more or less speeding tickets issued? Are there more or less speeding-related deaths or accidents?

      • Lofty says

        Flashing of headlights for speed traps is of course illegal, misuse of a warning device. Sometimes the cops place a second patrol car where the flashing can be seen from and book the drivers for that. As for the camera warning signs, they are predominately there to lend a veneer of respectability to the operation, you can’t claim you weren’t warned and the police get some good PR. A sporting chance, as it were. I don’t flash anymore, I think it’s time that people were able to read the speed signs for themselves.

        Last weekend I came home via a main highway and saw two separate police vehicles hidden just behind small town speed limit signs. They had no warning signs up and were expecting to catch drivers who slowed down late. It’s a revenue raiser if they place the cameras for maximum results instead of where safety is most paramount, nearest to where the shops etc were. No matter, on a busy Sunday afternoon a driver should know that’s the kind of place they love to hide.

  5. cantataprofana says

    In Europe, data protection law means that some sort of signage is unavoidable in practice: in order to track down the speeding driver you need an image of the licence plate, which meets the definition of “personal data”. Hence, fair notice is required.

  6. anat says

    I read somewhere that one of the best ways t get people to slow down is to let them know how fast they are driving. In my corner of US suburbia there are several places where the radar reads your speed and displays it to you. No cameras, no tickets, just feedback. I know I tend to adjust my speed as needed.

  7. Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought says

    Yes, speed cameras should definitely be signposted. Unless the roads get covered with a lot of cameras , so that a driver can be reasonably sure they will get be caught speeding at one point or another ,they will usually decide to just risk it. When there is a sign post, they will at least slow down there. Also a reason I like some radio stations warning people where police patrols are stationed. Sure, it “thwarts” the police in cashing in on tickets, but again – people slow down, they are more careful. And that should be the point.

    I am also in favour of speed radars that anat mentions. Of course you know your speed all the time, but it’s a bit different when it flashes on the radar. Even without the radar also having a camera, in a way you “get caught” which can get you to think twice about speeding.. but this is my own personal view on radars, so it would be interesting to see some data.

    • rq says

      In some towns they have a speed radar that flashes your speed at you, adjusted for speeding (with a red sad face) and for being within the limit (with a green smiling face). It’s amazing how much, even knowing the trick, people want to see a green smiley face on that sign flashing back at them.

      • Onamission5 says

        Ours is just orange. The LED’s stay steady if you’re within a reasonable range of the speed limit, and flash at you if you’re too far over. I want the smiley face!

  8. says

    How about you? Do you think speed cameras should be signposted?

    I prefer a cheaper, more permanent and less technological solution to speeders: speed bumps and chicanes. Drive the speed limit and/or slow down, or you damage your car. And if the infrastructure gets damaged by any accident, the driver pays to repair it.

    Driving is a privilege that can be taken away and should be taken away from some. It’s not a right, and there is no right to speed and endanger others.

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