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“Sir, the Limit is 65; Keep It Under 80.”

Speedometer.jpgAfter writing about the subject of police discretion here and here, it was interesting to experience the phenomenon at first hand.

On our way down to Logan on I93 the other day, an efficient state trooper, aided and abetted by a laser speed gun, flagged down your humble servant and his better half for driving, well, over 80. The statey was gruff and took no time for pleasantries. He simply ticketed us for driving at a speed ten miles per hour below that at which he said he had measured us, and told us to make sure that in the future we did not exceed the posted limit on interstates by more than 15mph. His exact words are reproduced in the title.

What to make of this? The trooper seemed to be saying that he and his fellow officers have changed the legal speed limit to 80mph. He wasn’t just being generous; he had the confidence to tell us straight out that the de facto limit in his state was different from the de jure one.

Too often we think of our legal system as rigid, but in fact police discretion gives laws a suppleness that makes sense. Driving 80mph in a modern car seems much safer to me than being in a big-finned clunker fifty years ago at the then-legal limit of 70mph. Maybe the police have recognized something that the state government is unable to understand or do anything about?

Or how about this alternative explanation? Perhaps our legislators have not changed the official limit from 65mph because they perceive that a flexible speed limit based upon police discretion is the best of all available solutions. Democracy can be such fun.

Note: In 1974 the federal government formally obliged the states to set the maximum speed limit at 55mph, a limit that was raised to 65mph in 1987. The National Maximum Speed Limit Law was repealed in 1995, and today states are free to set limits as they see fit.

Addendum: On a lighter note, with no vouchsafing for accuracy, click on this list of NH laws that, I expect, are rarely enforced.

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