Monday, July 21, 2008

The Spirituality of Driving the Speed Limit

Now that I am freeway-commuting half an hour to work every day, I've had some more time to reflect on the speed limit.

I am a convinced non-speeder. Let me say at the outset that there is some reason to doubt the legal status of the speed limit. According to St. Thomas (and the Catechism), there are four elements to a true law: an intelligible statement (the form) promulgated (the matter) by a legitimate authority (the agent) for the common good (the end). Where these conditions obtain, says St. Thomas (and the Catechism, following Romans), true law obliges, not only in the civil sphere but in conscience: he who breaks the law sins.

Speed limits are, without a doubt, uniquely intelligible (nothing is more purely intelligible than numbers); they serve the common good (more on that below); and the promulgating authority could not be more legitimately constituted than in a working democracy like ours.

There is an interesting question, however, about their promulgation. On the one hand, nothing is more clearly stated: a simple, numeric sign, frequently repeated. There is no law that is more easily determined than the speed limit. On the other hand, I do not believe I have ever seen a police car obeying it; traffic in general is not expected to obey the speed limit; and we all know that the police will not prosecute you if you're within five mph of the law. This creates the opening for an argument about custom (Thomas's technical term is consuetudo): when something is "always done" a certain way, it appears to the people that it is the law. I think one could make an argument that the custom whereby both police and drivers generally exceed the speed limit, usually by customary amounts, makes it legitimately difficult to tell what the authorities actually consider the legal speed limit to be. It undermines our ability to determine what is expected of us, an essential component of law.

In the end, I don't buy this argument. We don't have to be over strict. There are certain cases -- perhaps with decrepit parking meters, or pedestrian signals -- where long neglect is so obvious as to make the law itself questionable. But where there is doubt, we should probably assume that the law is real. Consider, for example, that Paul (in the passage the Catechism treats as determinative) demands obedience to the Roman "authorities" who killed our Lord, and then Paul himself. If Paul lends so much credence to legitimate authority, we probably should too.

All that said, I think there are spiritual fruits to obeying the speed limit, even if we're not sure whether it obliges in conscience. Reviewing these fruits will help us appreciate the beauty of law itself.

First, consider that a central reason for breaking the speed limit is our own passion for speed. Speed, to be sure, is a good, and the fun of going fast is a good. But we do well to put this in proportion. Twenty-five miles an hour, often treated as an absurdly slow speed limit, is about the top speed of a race horse -- until the invention of the train about one hundred fifty years ago, it was probably the fastest human beings had ever traveled. Speed is convenient and speed is fun, but there is something dehumanizing about going so far beyond our natural limits. Driving the speed limit puts our speed in context -- even going 65 when everyone else is driving 70 helps us to consider just how fast we are moving. Limiting our passions can help us appreciate them better.

Second, the speed limit is ordained for the common good. Apart from the speed limit, we often determine our speed based on our own safety. But there are other people on the road. I might be okay weaving through traffic, but for the driver who is somehow impaired, or sleepy, or distracted, my speed could be a life-threatening hazard. And what is safe for one driver might not be safe if everyone were doing it.

This turns on its head a common notion about fast driving. It seems to me that many people judge how "good" a driver is based on how fast he can go. My brother-in-law thinks he's an excellent driver because he can get from A to B in record time -- and my father-in-law is terrified to drive with me because he thinks if I drive so slowly, I must not know what I'm doing. But to the contrary, a good driver is one who considers not only his own needs, but the needs of those around him. I think it fair to say that I am more "in control" of what I am doing than the speeder.

This, in turn, leads us to a deeper aspect of law. Authority exists not only to coordinate all subjects to a common good (the end), but also to oversee the coordination itself (the means). When I drive from home to work, my only concern is to get to work -- in one piece, to be sure, but as fast as I can. The job of the Authorities, however, is to oversee the goods of the many -- to make sure that my self-centered action does not trample other selves.

Speed limits can serve this function in many ways. Driving through Northern Minnesota several years ago, I was struck by a sign outside a farm house. It stated that fast traffic is noisy. I had never thought of that before. I later learned that on a stretch of freeway through St. Paul where the speed limit mysteriously dropped to an "unreasonable" rate, the limit was determined not based on the safety of drivers but on the noise levels of the surrounding neighborhood. I had never thought of that. Similarly, I first encountered the problem of speeding in the suburban cul-de-sac neighborhood where we lived when I was in high school. To the driver, the main road seemed like an exciting series of S-curves. To those of us who walked on that sidewalk-less street, however, the speed limit was a matter of life and death. The speed limit served not only the safety of the drivers, but also the peace safety of pedestrians.

And I have read of efforts to solve traffic jams by reducing speed limits. Traffic is a complicated problem of game-theory, where what is best over all is not best for me if I'm the only one doing it. If everyone tries to go 65 during rush hour, then even one person touching his breaks can set off a long string of brake-slamming -- we've all experienced this odd phenomenon, where traffic screeches to a halt for no apparent reason. All the worse if there has been a real accident: rubber-necking can back up traffic for miles. All of this can be greatly mitigated, it seems, by just requiring traffic to drive more slowly in the first place. If we all drive 40, instead of 65, then we can all keep driving 40 and not have to stop and go.

The point of all this is that legitimate authority takes a broader view than we as individuals can see. I just want to get to work. But the road I travel affects many people beyond myself. It is right for an authority to control my actions -- to limit my speed -- in order to protect goods that I do not see, goods I had never considered. My obedience to that legitimate order, in turn, helps me to see that there is a world bigger than myself, to appreciate that my actions affect others and that I am not omniscient. Obeying the speed limit is a valuable exercise in humility.

Finally, obeying the speed limit is simply an exercise in obedience. The father of a friend of mine once gave me this advice: "children don't do what you say, they do what you do." The example he used has stuck with me: "If you tell your children to obey the law as they watch you break the speed limit, they will follow your actions, not your words, and ignore the law themselves."

The speed limit, precisely because it is so clearly stated and so numerically precise, is our most direct experience of civil authority. It is easy, in a sense, not to kill, or perjure, or steal, both because opportunities rarely present themselves and because we can see how these things affect another person. I don't steal, not just because it's illegal, but because I know it will hurt the proprietor of this convenience store. And yet it's good to realize that there are bigger goods, that life is more than a bunch of individuals not hurting one another. It is good to practice obedience -- and, I think, profoundly dehumanizing -- de-Christianizing -- when every day, everywhere we drive, we look authority in the face (in the image of that speed-limit sign) and say, "I will not serve."

I drive the speed limit. I do it because I think it is a true law, and as a Catholic, I believe that law obliges in conscience; I think it is a sin to speed. But I also do it because I think it's good for me. Not only is it safer (and let's be frank: the statistics say that speed is by far the top cause of traffic accidents), but it also helps me to appreciate that I am part of a world bigger than myself. There are things I'd never thought about. My passions are not the only rule. There are needs other than my own. And we were made for obedience to legitimate authority -- to the one legitimate authority who is Christ our God. Even if I didn't believe this was a true law, I think the spiritual benefits of driving the speed limit would be worth the extra five minutes and the occasional angry tailgater.

And I hope I can play a small role in creating a society in which everyone reaps these spiritual benefits. The custom of lawlessness is one law I will not serve.