Monday, November 24, 2008

Life is speeding up

The Southern Economic Association meetings were held this past weekend in Washington. For me, that meant a five-hour drive from Greensboro up to DC on Friday night, and another five-hour drive back on Sunday.

One pleasant surprise along the way was the continued drop in gas prices. I usually stop for gas along interstate 95 at exit 61, just north of Petersburg or about two-thirds of the way up to Washington. Gas prices there were below $1.70/gallon. Just a few months ago, prices were $2/gallon higher.

One less pleasant observation (it wasn't really a surprise) was a return to rampant speeding. On previous trips during the last year and especially this fall, the right-hand lane saw a good share of the traffic moving at the posted speed limits. That wasn't the case on this trip though. I set the cruise control at 65 mph for most of the trip, and increased it to 70 mph for the 60 miles of interstate 85 that are posted at that speed. With the exception of the truck traffic that seemed to be keeping to those speeds, it was a lonely vigil in the right-hand lane.

The relatively relaxed pace of the journey provided some time to think about the many costs of speeding.

  • Let's start with the obvious, speeders cost themselves money. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that fuel economy falls about 10 percent for each 5 mph you travel over 60 mph. Even at the cheap prices along the NC-VA route, that works out to roughly a 17-20 cent a gallon surcharge for traveling 70 mph in a 65 mph zone or a 34-40 cent a gallon surcharge for traveling 75 in the same zone. Put another way, each 5 mph over the limit costs drivers the same as the federal gasoline tax (18.4 cents per gallon).

  • Multiplied many times over when you consider all of the speeding that occurs, that behavior also increases gasoline demand, which in turn pushes up gas and oil prices. One individual keeping to the posted limits doesn't bring down prices, but a large share driving this way does. Many things have contributed to the recent changes in gas prices, but reduced demand certainly plays a role. U.S. petroleum consumption has declined every month this year, with the August 2008 consumption figure being lower than at any other time since the end of 2001.

  • Energy prices are a component in most other prices; so, reduced demand helps to bring down the costs of many other goods.

  • Reduced speeding saves lives and property. Estimates from 1998 indicate that speeding was a factor in one-third of vehicle crashes and that those accidents cost $28 billion a year.

  • Speeding pollutes more and contributes to excess greenhouse gases; the extraction, refinement, and transportation of petroleum also pollute.

  • Because the U.S. produces only a fraction of the petroleum that it consumes, the excess demand from speeding adds to our net imports and weakens our dollar. That weaker dollar means that you pay more for other imported goods.

  • Where to those import revenues go? Directly or indirectly the revenues end up in the government coffers of a host of delightful countries, including Venezuela, Iran, Russia, and Angola (note that even though we don't purchase oil directly from Iran, other countries do). Each and every speeder brings smiles to the faces of Hugo Chavez, Vladimir Putin, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Speeders are truly their friends.
The message from all of this is a simple. Following the speed limit saves money and lives; it benefits the environment, and it helps our security. All that it costs you is a little time.