What Part of "Speed Limit 65" Do I Not Understand?

by Don Boudreaux on June 7, 2004

in Law

There it was, in big, bold, black and white: “SPEED LIMIT 65

As I drove on Saturday to a conference, signs with this crystal-clear message were displayed prominently along I-66, I-81, and I-64 in Virginia. And yet I disobeyed this command not to drive at speeds in excess of 65 MPH. I set my cruise-control on 73 (just shy of ten-miles per hour over the posted speed limit), kept it there, and enjoyed the drive. I even passed three or four patrol cars lying in wait for speeders. Not one pursued me.
….

I do a mental experiment. Suppose that I had been pulled over and ticketed for violating the posted speed limit. I would have felt wronged, despite the fact that I did indeed drive faster than the posted limit. In contrast, had I instead been driving along at, say, 95 MPH and gotten pulled over and ticketed, I would not have felt wronged; I would regret being caught, but nothing within me would have yelled “I was ticketed unjustifiably!”

This everyday driving experience and my mental experiment confirm that law is not just what the state says it is and only what the state says it is. Law is much more nuanced, rich, and spontaneous than the state’s written rules. The real law on U.S. highways is something like the following: if weather conditions are decent and if traffic is not too heavy, then you can drive between five and ten miles per hour over the posted speed limit. No one legislated this rule; it’s not written down in any official statute book; it’s certainly not posted along highways. It evolved spontaneously from everyday practice and is now part of the expectations of all drivers — and, importantly, it is also part of the expectations of highway patrol officers.

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