Sunday, June 17, 2007

Laying Down the Law

I'm a law-breaker. I break the law on a daily basis. I do it knowingly, willfully, and without remorse. In fact, I often break the law in full view of the police with impunity. They know I'm breaking the law, and they do nothing about it. The law that I break on a daily basis is one that is commonly broken by almost everyone. I break the speed limit.

I have good reason to break this law, actually. I have given a great deal of thought to my behavior in this matter, as I drive over 20 miles to and from work 5 days a week. Being a person of good conscience, and a habitual analyst, I have endeavored to apply my problem-solving skills to determine the best, most optimal methodology to apply in the performance of this task. My findings may be of interest. In fact, this subject matter, that of "the law," is likely to span several entries. There are a lot of aspects I would like to cover. I believe that there is a great deal of misunderstanding with regards to law and government, and as part of my service to humanity, I would like to offer my observations.

Here is my reasoning regarding the observance of this particular law, the speed limit. This reasoning can be applied broadly to any law, and in fact, leads to a number of general observations and conclusions that may be derived from those observations. The application of these observations and conclusions may produce many beneficial effects on the quality of life.

First, let me begin by saying that the vast majority of my drive to and from work is via interstate highways. Interstate highways are unique among roads for a number of reasons. They are limited access roads, without traffic lights, very well constructed, and at least one out of every six miles of every interstate highway is completely straight. This is all due to the original reason for the construction of the interstate highway system, which was originally commisioned for the benefit of the U.S. military. That's a very interesting story, but not the subject of this post.

These conditions, however, make interstate highways safer than ordinary roads, and of course facilitate faster travel on them. Still, this has nothing to do with my law-breaking, but only with the conditions of travel that I used in my calculations.

In Hampton Roads (southeast Virginia), the speed limit on most interstate highways is 55 mph. In some places it is 60, and in a few places it is 65. The majority of the road I travel has a 55 mph speed limit. Yet, I have observed that the average speed of traffic on these particular roads is anywhere from 65-70 mph.

My analysis regarding the optimum method of travel are based upon 2 logical priorities:
  1. Travel safely. This is the prime directive.
  2. Optimize use of time by making the trip in the shortest possible time.
Note that the second priority never supercedes the first.

A number of rules and methods can be derived from these 2 principles, taking into account environmental factors, such as the laws of physics and human behavior/psychology.

First, applying the laws of physics with regards to the first priority, speed is always relative. We do not often think of it in this way. We think that all vehicles travelling 55 mph are travelling at the same speed. Yet, speed is a measure of distance over time, and what we think of as 55 mph is actually a "default" measure that is relative to the surface of the earth. The earth itself, however, is not stationary. It is rotating on its' axis, and revolving around the sun, which is also in motion. In fact, the entire universe is in a constant state of motion.

More importantly, almost all traffic on a highway is in motion. 2 cars travelling in the same direction at 55 mph are moving at a rate of 0 mph relative to one another. That is, relative to one another, they are stationary. Since the first priority of travel is safety, avoiding collisions is of paramount importance. Objects that are stationary relative to one another never collide. Therefore, 2 cars travelling at the same speed in the same direction on the same road will never collide. The rate or direction of one of the cars must change in order for that to happen.

On the other hand, a car that is stationary on the same highway is "travelling" at a rate of 55 mph relative to a vehicle that is travelling at 55 mph. If the vehicle travelling at 55 mph relative to the surface of the earth is travelling towards the stationary vehicle, a collision is inevitable, again, unless one or the other of the vehicles changes its rate of speed or direction.

According to the laws of physics, objects in motion will continue to move in the same direction at the same speed unless force is exerted upon them. This is termed "momentum." What causes vehicles to slow down is the force of friction and the force of gravity being constantly applied to them. Hence, we must apply force via the engine to keep them moving at the same rate of speed unless they are moving downhill, in which case gravity exterts force upon them.

At any rate, momentum is a force to be reckoned with regarding driving. 2 vehicles on a collision course will require force to be exerted on one or the other in order to avoid a collision. So, the vehicle travelling at 55 mph relative to the surface of the earth will have to apply brakes or change direction to avoid colliding with the stationary vehicle. However, 2 vehicles travelling at exactly the same rate of speed relative to the surface of the earth, and travelling in the same direction, require no force to avoid a collision. In fact, it would require force to create a collision between them.

Using these 2 scenarios as extreme examples, a rule can be created: To avoid a collision, the most optimal speed of 2 vehicles travelling in the same direction on the same road should travel at the same rate of speed.

However, there are generally many more than 2 vehicles travelling in the same direction on an interstate highway in the same area at the same time, especially here in Hampton Roads. Of all the vehicles, the one I am driving is the only one I can control. And all of the other vehicles are travelling at varying rates of speed. Because of the speed limit, and similar goals in the minds of the other drivers, the rate of speed will generally cluster around an average, forming a statistical bell curve.

For anyone not familiar with a bell curve, I think of a bell curve as a sort of hat. It has a hump in the middle, denoting the majority of the average, and thins out towards each end, or the "brim" of the "hat." It is derived by taking a large number of statistical data, and rather than averaging them all together, averaging segments of them over a graph, and then smoothing the resulting curve.

The speed bell curve can be used to calculate the optimum rate of speed, because it is impossible to match the speed exactly of all vehicles travelling in the same direction on a highway. In other words, while the probability of a collision with regards to 2 vehicles travelling at the same rate of speed is 0, and the probability of a collsion between 2 vehicles travelling at differing rates of speed is 100, in any group of vehicles travelling at different rates of speed, the probability is lowest at the center of the bell curve, or the total statistical average rate of speed derived from the entire set.

Thus, a general rule may be created: The safest possible speed to travel on any road is the average speed of all of the traffic. It turns out that this rule must be further refined, but I will cover that topic at another time.

In this case, my point is this: If the speed limit on a road is 55 mph, and the average speed of the traffic is 65 mph, the safest possible speed to travel on that road is 65 mph, not 55 mph. Therefore, in order to travel as safely as possible on the interstate roads in Hampton Roads, I break the law. I never get a speeding ticket either, because the police are aware of my good reasons for doing so. At least once a week I will pass by a traffic police car, breaking the speed limit law, and be completely ignored.

It may therefore be observed that by breaking the law, I am doing the right thing morally and ethically. If I were to obey the law, I would be putting other drivers and myself at greater risk.

So, what good is the law? Well, it turns out that it actually does serve a purpose, but that the purpose of the law is not the purpose that is generally assumed. In the case of the speed limit, as an introductory example, the law empowers the police to take corrective action in the interest of protecting the public. The police have the authority to ticket anyone travelling in excess of the speed limit. This means that, regardless of my moral responsibility to exceed the speed limit, if I do so, a police officer has the authority to pull me over and write me a ticket.

However, having the authority to write a ticket does not dictate that the officer do so at any time a person is observed exceeding the speed limit. It is simply an authority, an empowerment. The officer has the option to exercise his/her judgment to decide when to exert that authority. That is, the officer may ignore the law as well, when it seems right to do so. The vast majority of police officers will not ticket people travelling at the average speed of the traffic, as they are well aware of the safety issues I have discussed. To ticket a driver for speeding creates a dis-incentive for that person to exceed the speed limit. If the average speed of traffic is 65 mph, encouraging an individual driver to drive 10 mph slower would actually increase the probability of collisions on that road. And it is important to keep in mind that the police officer can not ticket everyone speeding, but only one person at a time. Like me, the police officer has no control over the rest of the traffic.

In concluding today's discussion of the law, what I'm getting at is this: Law does not control. It empowers. Creating a law does not prevent people from breaking it. It is the empowerment of the enforcers of the law which has any effect at all, and that effect is not the prevention of a behavior; it is a method for influencing behavior statistically. Also, the existence of a law should not dictate our behavior. Regardless of the reasons for its existence, our behavior should be governed by morality, ethics, and logic.

It is wise to respect the power that the law grants to the enforcers of the law, just as it is wise to repect the power of electricity, and to avoid sticking one's finger in an electrical outlet. However, it is foolish to make law the dictator of one's behavior, or to put the adherence to law above the responsibility to behave in a moral and ethical manner. And it important to understand the difference.

Again, I have much more to say about the topic, but I think that is enough for one post.

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