Saturday, August 9, 2008

Speed limiter laws and the encroaching ‘nanny state’

A few weeks ago the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Highways and Transit had a hearing entitled “Improving Roadway Safety ...” One of the panelists was a safety advocate who argued that stricter speed limits on our national highways should be placed on the national agenda. He argued that this measure would save both lives and energy.

When the debate is framed this way it is difficult to argue against these seemingly noble objectives. It follows that safety and public health are held up as paramount concerns for the government. Although I’m sure that safety advocates have good intentions, much is at stake in this complex debate, including many personal freedoms, standards of living and the livelihoods of small-business truckers.

Small-business truckers are again having to confront burdensome legislation – under the banner of enhancing highway safety – when conducting their occupations. In Canada, the provincial governments of Ontario and Quebec have approved legislation requiring heavy truck engines to be limited to a maximum speed of 65 mph. This legislation was originally pushed in the name of promoting highway safety, in spite of research to the contrary. Unfortunately, these efforts are insidious in several ways: they create congestion, impact the livelihoods of drivers, and make highways less safe.

In the U.S. Congress, there is a bill that seeks to establish a national maximum speed limit of 60 mph on highways (HR6458). Though this legislation is a long shot, it embodies the core dilemma of this debate. The thought behind this bill is that reducing the speed limit will reduce fatalities on our nation’s roads, but with this logic, we could lower the national speed limit for highways to 25 mph and reduce vehicular fatalities even further. Of course, this outcome would also cripple trade and commerce. There are obvious tradeoffs in this debate and a need to strike a delicate balance that promotes safety while not overly burdening highway users.

This issue carries great salience because it represents broader themes of political philosophy. One side of this debate talks about the morality of social protection and the other side talks about the morality of personal responsibility and individual liberty. In addition to calls for speed limitations, many other issues are caught in this philosophical tug of war, including mandatory seatbelt laws, prohibitions of smoking in buildings, mandatory helmet laws for bicycle riders, and laws to combat obesity. What makes all these issues similar is that they share the goal of enhancing safety and “public health.” The social protection camp would argue that one role of the state is to allow people freedom to do what they want up to the point where other people are harmed.

With all this in mind, the question is: At what point are we venturing into “nanny state” territory, where the government attempts to run the private lives of its citizens? To this end, it seems patronizing to make decisions for people in areas that should be subject to individual choice and discretion. One example of governmental over-reaching is the trend toward public health laws aimed at attacking the scourge of fatty foods. It seems to me that if we justify laws based on what’s good for people, there is no end in sight. In the end, life is about living. Many good people willingly choose to drink, smoke and eat fatty foods, and are well aware of the health risks.

Granted, there is a keen need to strike a balance when serious public health issues are at stake. The question remains whether excessive speed limit laws fall into this “nanny state” category. I would argue that excessive speed limitations on highways represent the encroachment of the “nanny state” into the personal lives of citizens.

Now what’s the difference between laws targeting fatty foods and excessive speed limit laws? While the former can be blamed for thousands of deaths, increased disease, and a loss of productivity, the latter has an affect on other people, not just the individual. Surely, one could attempt to argue that the thousands of deaths on our nation’s highways every year call for a more strict scrutiny and regulation of speed limitations for commercial vehicles. Although a persuasive case can be made to the general public in this direction, it is altogether unconvincing because vital philosophical issues hang in the balance.

Safety advocates may push for national speed limitation laws under the banner of increasing highway safety, but they would also be pushing for limiting personal freedom, livelihoods, and individual discretion.