Reexamining the Speed Limit on Expressways

      December 22, 2009 11:24

      In 1885 after Karl Benz invented a gasoline-powered automobile that could travel at 16 km/h, Germany's Interior Ministry established a speed limit of 6 km/h within city boundaries and 11 km/h outside the city. Benz invited the interior minister for a test drive, and while they were on the road a milk wagon sped past them. The driver of the wagon, who had rehearsed the line with Benz beforehand, shouted, "What kind of slow car is that? Get rid of it!" When the minister demanded that Benz speed up, Benz said he was not permitted to do so because of the speed limit. Thus the world's first speed limit was scrapped.

      There was a time in the 1930s that cars were traveling even at speeds of up to 300 km/h on the German Autobahn, but an increase in speeding cars and accidents has forced the German government to establish speed limits. Now drivers are not permitted to travel faster than 100 km/h in urban areas and 130 km/h elsewhere. And they drive at an average of 140 km/h even in areas where there are no speed limits. Yet still accidents on the Autobahn account for only 10 percent of all traffic accidents in the country, and the total number of accidents is no more than a third of that of the U.S.

      Until it was scrapped in 1995, the 55 mile-an-hour (89 km/h) speed limit in the U.S. was the most disregarded national law since Prohibition. Many Americans viewed the limit as a hypocrisy. In 1995, 33 U.S. states raised the speed limit, but the number of traffic fatalities dropped. In fact, fatality rates in states that raised the limit dropped below those in states that did not, which proved traffic scientist Tilmann Rave's 1985 theory that higher speeds would not lead to more traffic fatalities and that a mixture of slow and fast-moving vehicles was more dangerous.

      The Korean National Police Agency on Monday increased the speed limit on the West Coast Highway, Jungbu Expressway and six other expressways from 110 km/h to 120 km/h, and from 100 km/h to 110 km/h on certain sections of other expressways. Capping the speed limit at 110 km/h was unrealistic since the recently-built expressways are designed to accommodate vehicles traveling at 120 km/h, the police agency said. Certain segments of the Gyeongbu Expressway which have been straightened and widened will also get a higher speed limit.

      It may be necessary to implement more realistic speed limits in light of the fact that so many drivers currently drive over the limit. But critics point out that increasing the limit only invites drivers to travel even faster. The problem is that speed limits are not being observed, because drivers slow down only in areas that are monitored by cameras and speed up in other areas. In the U.S. state of New Jersey police drive unmarked vehicles to catch speeders. Perhaps Korea needs to implement such measures in order to make drivers respect the speed limits and other traffic laws whether or not they are monitored.

      By Chosun Ilbo columnist Kim Hong-jin

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