I was dismayed by the Newport Beach City Council’s recent vote to raise speed limits on several streets, including a portion of East Coast Highway.
Council members said they were compelled by state law, which dictates that speed limits are set to the speed at or below which 85% of traffic moves.
A few days after the council’s decision, a 10-car pileup on West Coast Highway near Riverside Avenue resulted in three deaths. The cause of the crash is still under investigation, but it’s clear that excessive speed played a part.
While the council’s decision and the accident are in no way related, it seemed a tragic irony that we should be so quickly reminded of the dangers inherent in our custom of hurtling around in metal boxes. Going faster raises the risks. It’s as simple as that.
Increasing speed limits makes me think of a psychology experiment I was involved with during college. Subjects were asked to look at a series of boxes and rate them by size, from 1 to 9. They weren’t told, however, that there were only seven sizes of boxes.
As you may guess, the study participants ranked the boxes as if there were nine sizes anyway. The point of the experiment was to show that our minds adjust to a perceived reality, based on the information we are given.
So it is, I believe, with speed limits. Drivers will automatically adjust to the new, higher speed limits, using them as a benchmark for how fast they should go — even if prudence and good judgment dictate otherwise. And let’s face it, most of us use speed limits as a minimum rather than as a maximum.
So I am proposing an experiment of my own.
I pledge that for the next month I will not exceed the speed limit.
Ever. Anywhere. For any reason.
If my son is late to school, I will not speed. If the movie started five minutes ago — and I hate, hate, hate missing the start of a film — I will not speed. If the guy behind me gives me the finger, I will not speed.
I am asking — no, challenging — everyone reading this to take the pledge. For the next month, do your best to drive no faster than the speed limit.
I know it won’t be easy. You might be late to work one day, and the temptation will be great. You might be the only one on the road, and you’ll feel the urge to cheat. You might simply forget, or convince yourself that if other cars are going faster that it really isn’t safe to stay within the limit. I’m routinely guilty of all the above.
The bottom line is that most of us tell ourselves we’re just too busy, and we have to get where we’re going fast.
It’s not true.
I am reminded of a story I once reported for the Los Angeles Times that dealt with the increasing speed at which our society operates. I came across some interesting research that showed that our collective belief that people in our modern world are forced to live busier lives than ever before is an illusion.
We are busier, the research indicated, but it’s by design. We actually have more leisure time than generations before us; we just choose to fill it up with an endless array of optional activities, such as sports, TV and Facebook. A former colleague of mine called it the “busier than thou” complex.
We choose to go fast. We can choose to slow down.
I asked Sgt. Steve Burdette of the Newport Beach Police Department what he thought of my plan.
“I think it’s a great idea,” he said, though he warned me to be prepared for other drivers to honk, flash their lights and ride my tail.
But if enough people join in my go-slow campaign, he said, we would almost certainly see a decline in traffic accidents. Throw in a promise to stay off cell phones, he added, and we’d see an even better outcome.
If you need further incentive, consider that driving at a slower speed consumes less gas. That will save you money and be less damaging to the environment. I’ll have the added benefit of setting a good example for my son, who is learning to drive. (He is shockingly lacking in enthusiasm for my project, but if he doesn’t cooperate, he doesn’t get the keys.)
I’m not asking for perfection, just a good-faith effort. If you decide to participate, let me know how you’re doing. I want to know what you learn, how it affects your life and if you think you’ll stick with it after a month.
I hope I’m not the only one willing to give this a shot. Either way, I’ll get back to you and let you know how I — or we — did.
But for now, brace yourselves, neighbors — I’m slowing down.
PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.