A Meditation on the Speed Limit

Status: Civil Disobedience Prank
image In order to demonstrate the stupidity of the 55 mph speed limit, four Atlanta students pulled a dangerous stunt: they all drove exactly 55 mph on the highway, in a line, thereby blocking the flow of traffic and creating an enormous traffic jam. Check out the video of it. I realize the students thought they were doing something clever, but as I watched the video I found myself getting more and more angry at them. It was like experiencing road rage while sitting behind a computer. I kept imagining the people in the blocked traffic who probably had to get to work, or wanted to get home, and who were instead being held up by these idiots and their road block.

Anyway, their argument — that their experiment proves the absurdity of the 55 mph law — is flawed. It didn't prove that at all. All it proved is that if you form a rolling blockade, it's going to create a traffic jam. It would have had the same effect at 65 mph. Plus, it's definitely against the law to form a blockade like they did. Only the police are allowed to do that. So they weren't actually obeying the law.

I realize that pranks are supposed to be obnoxious and annoy some people. But delaying innocent commuters, and creating a situation in which people could easily have gotten hurt as anger escalated, just doesn't seem quite right to me. Though this is probably the angry driver inside of me feeling that way. (One more thing: at the beginning of the video they misspell the word obedience.)

Update: Some quick googling, and I found the section of Georgia law (code 40-6-40, section D) that applies to what they did:

No two vehicles shall impede the normal flow of traffic by traveling side by side at the same time while in adjacent lanes, provided that this Code section shall not be construed to prevent vehicles traveling side by side in adjacent lanes because of congested traffic conditions.

So it was illegal, and they made a video of themselves doing it. Not too smart.

Update 2: David Spear, a spokesman for the Atlanta Police Department, has been quoted as saying that what the students did was legal:

David Spear, a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation, said if the students weren't blocking emergency vehicles and were going the speed limit, "they didn't do a thing wrong." Spear added that the speed limit was lowered to 55 because it saves lives. "In Atlanta, the actual effect of it is we expect the people going 75 to move over so the people going 95 can have the right of way," he said.

So I guess I was wrong. Though I'm still having a hard time understanding how it can be legal, when the code referenced above seems to state that it's not legal.


Posted on Wed Mar 01, 2006


Exactly. A rolling blockade at any speed would be a public nuisance. A speed limit is supposed to be a maximum speed, not the exact spedd everyone drives all the time, so if one of them drove 55, one 53, one 51, and one 49 mph, they wouldn't be blocking traffic.

I don't know that they were breaking any laws, though, if they obeyed all other traffic rules and were careful of hazards. They were just jerks.
Posted by Big Gary, ambling along  in  Dallas, Texas, USA  on  Wed Mar 01, 2006  at  10:13 AM
I couldn't watch the whole thing. I got to the part where the white van tried to pass on the shoulder. I would have done the same thing. I don't know laws, but I think there's something about which lanes are appropriate for driving (i.e., the left lane is passing-only, the center lane(s) is travelling, and the right lane is for emerging or exiting traffic). Most likely, they could have gotten in legal trouble.

However, they're just a bunch of punks. What did James Dean say when asked what he was rebelling against (movie reference).
Posted by Bill  on  Wed Mar 01, 2006  at  10:35 AM
Wow, talk about non-impartial journalistic reporting on this one.
Admitably, I cant hear the sound of what they're saying on the video, but yes, watching their facial expressions and joy at annoying hundreds(thousands) of people is very frustrating. They seem less interested at making a point and more interested at being public nuisances.
But, I do agree with the message they were trying to say. Speed limits are set by bleeding heart politicians, not for practical reasons.
Originally from Australia, I'm used to waves and waves of speed cameras (manned and unmanned) to catch you and fine you. Your chance of getting caught is high.
Here in Canada now, I've gone past police cars doing 20km/h over the limit and they dont seem to care. In fact, everyone speeds if the weather is right.
So, as long as police discretion is used the way it seems to be for me now(you are only stopped if you're driving 'dangerously' over the limit) then I dont think the laws should be changed.
Until, of course, they run low on budget and go on a ticket drive to raise money, then I'll switch sides.
Posted by AussieBruce  on  Wed Mar 01, 2006  at  10:56 AM
Totally disagree with y'all.
If they slowed down traffic, the slowed it down to 55, the legal limit. If a city or state WANTS people to be allowed to drive 75, it should make the speed limit 75 and enforce it as such. Excessively low, unenforced speed limits are hypocracy, and sometimes hypocracy needs a good kick in the ass.
The one thing I would have done differently would be to have some plan in place to make sure an ambulance or fire engine could get through. Like maybe "spotters" with cell phones driving a mile or two back.
Posted by Jeff  on  Wed Mar 01, 2006  at  11:29 AM
"What did James Dean say when asked what he was rebelling against (movie reference)."

You're probably thinking of the scene in "The Wild Ones," where Marlon Brando plays a biker gang leader. Somebody asks Brando's character, "What are you rebelling against?" and he answers, "What have you got?"
Posted by Big Gary, ambling along  in  Dallas, Texas, USA  on  Wed Mar 01, 2006  at  12:01 PM
I can see where these kids were coming from, although the main problem with speed limits like that are that one day you won't be ticketed at a certain speed and the next day some cop looking to fill his quota will bust you. The actual limit should be posted. However this looks like the work of a bunch of punk kids playing a stupid game and endangering others.
Posted by Zoe  on  Wed Mar 01, 2006  at  12:28 PM
I don't think that they did anything wrong. All four of them obeyed the speed limit, and those trying to pass were breaking the law. It sounds like something I would do.
Posted by Dracul  on  Wed Mar 01, 2006  at  01:17 PM
This is great. i just got a ticket yesterday for going 2 miles per hour over the speed limit.
Posted by Ryan  on  Wed Mar 01, 2006  at  01:36 PM
Georgia Code 40-6-40 states:

No two vehicles shall impede the normal flow of traffic by traveling side by side at the same time while in adjacent lanes, provided that this Code section shall not be construed to prevent vehicles traveling side by side in adjacent lanes because of congested traffic conditions.

So they were breaking the law.
Posted by The Curator  in  San Diego  on  Wed Mar 01, 2006  at  01:57 PM
They weren't breaking the law because they were all traveling the speed limit. The 'two abreast' provision doesn't apply. None of the cars could have passed and moved to the right because in doing so they would have exceeded the speed limit. Additionally, none of the cars could have slowed down to merge right because of congested traffic conditions.

Was this prank great? Yes. Was it dangerous? Yes. Should it be repeated? No. Does it show the hypocrisy of speed limit enforcement? Yes.

I once read that the quickest way to see the legalization of many recreational drugs would be to enact random drug testing as a requirement for carrying a driver's license. So many people would be at risk of failing, the law would have to change. I believe the same thing applies here.

Although I'm personally not a fan of automated photo ticketing systems, they would solve the problem. If everyone who exceeded the speed limit on that highway received a ticket, the speed limit would be 75MPH within a month.

All that said, the risk of death in an automobile accident dramatically rises with an increase in speed. There are lots of reasons this happens but lower speed limits save lives. Its hard to dispute.
Posted by Aaron  in  Philadelphia  on  Wed Mar 01, 2006  at  02:32 PM
Legislation is about to be proposed at the State level that will do away with speed limits in favor of "momentum" limits. The driving force is government studies that prove drivers of heavier vehicles are more likely to cause accidents, and that accidents involving heavier vehicles are more likely to cause fatalities. Because of this, it doesn't make mathematical (or common) sense to let heavy vehicles drive at the same speed as light vehicles.

The study can be found at the R&D site for the Department of Transportation:


The basic idea is that a 10,000 pound (Gross Vehicle Weight Rating) SUV moving at 75 MPH has four times as much momentum as a 2,500 pound passenger car moving at 75 MPH. Thus, the SUV in this scenario packs a lot more potential energy, is much more likely to cause an accident and any accident it is involved in is much more likely to be deadly. Therefore, the SUV would be required to reduce its speed.

Actually, the new law would require heavier vehicles to travel at lower speeds, and would actually enable drivers of lighter vehicles to travel faster than current limits.

The expense of implementing this would be supported by "wear and tear" taxes on the heavier vehicles, since they cause degradation of roads, bridges etc. at a faster rate.
Posted by intjudo  on  Wed Mar 01, 2006  at  03:07 PM
I don't know, Aaron. The way I read the Georgia code, it doesn't mention anything about it being legal to drive side-by-side if you're doing the speed limit. It's just a blanket prohibition: you can't drive side by side and block traffic. They clearly were impeding the flow of traffic.
Posted by The Curator  in  San Diego  on  Wed Mar 01, 2006  at  03:16 PM
But your stuck...the only way to not break that law is to break another. Catch-22.
Posted by Aaron  in  Philadelphia  on  Wed Mar 01, 2006  at  03:23 PM
Aaron, you're forgetting that it's legal for certain vehicles (police cars, fire trucks, ambulances) to drive over the speed limit. But the students were indiscriminately blocking all traffic. I think that's the logic behind the "no two abreast" law. A row of cars can't block all lanes, even if they're going the maximum speed limit, because some vehicles might have a legitimate reason to need to get past them.
Posted by The Curator  in  San Diego  on  Wed Mar 01, 2006  at  03:38 PM
They were travelling the legal maximum speed limit. As such, even travelling abreast, they did not "impede the normal flow of traffic". According to the law, the normal flow of traffic is 55 miles per hour. They were impeding *abnormal* flow.

What I would have done different, however, would have been to have the cars travel in a staggered or diagonal line, still not allowing room to move between them, but *technically* not side-by-side.

I might have added bumper stickers saying "Honk if you think the 55 limit sucks"

Then again, had I been one of the unwitting participants in the crowd behind them, I probably would have been the white van...
Posted by Eric K.  on  Wed Mar 01, 2006  at  03:41 PM
"Anyway, their argument
Posted by fk  on  Wed Mar 01, 2006  at  03:56 PM
Hmmm... they were all travelling the posted legal speed limit in their respective lanes. This means:

A) They can't be "blockading" traffic. To blockade means to impede. To impede you must keep drivers from being able to freely travel at the legal posted limit. If you are already travelling the legal posted limit, then drivers adhering to the same posted limit cannot, as governed by the rules of physics, pass your vehicle.

B) Any driver who passes them is, by definition, breaking the law.

I see a whole host of infractions on the video - tailgaiting, unsafe lane changes, unsafe passing, and speeding to name a few. And none of them by the students. Instead of screaming about what the students did (kudo's to them, by the way) why isn't the media screaming for a bunch of cops to be scouring the video and sending tickets to everyone who intentionally broke traffic laws to unsafely go around four drivers adhering to the posted legal limit?
Posted by Brad  in  Lubbock, TX  on  Wed Mar 01, 2006  at  04:07 PM
"B) Any driver who passes them is, by definition, breaking the law"

But is that true? Aren't you allowed to exceed the speed limit while passing? (I'm actually asking, because I don't know.)

Call me impatient, but it would be very time consuming to pass someone going 50 in a 55 zone if you couldn't. And if it were on a road with one lane going each direction at 35, how would you pass someone going 30 without risking head-on collisions?
Posted by fk  on  Wed Mar 01, 2006  at  04:13 PM
This seems to be very like a prank from a book called TTYL by Lauren Myracle.

go look: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0810948214/103-9849153-1115824?v=glance&n=283155

Not a very good book, but there is a scene exactly like this in it.
Posted by Snowy  in  aeternum  on  Wed Mar 01, 2006  at  04:16 PM
It's a common fallacy that you can speed when passing, but it's not true. Speeding is speeding, regardless, and you can certainly get a ticket for it.

Yes what they did is irritating, but I have to agree that they were doing the legally posted limit. I think a court would have to decide if this constitutes obstructionism since it's generally only applied to people driving under the limit. But I also agree that it was extremely dangerous and should never have been done, regardless of the point they meant to make.
Posted by Charybdis  in  Hell  on  Wed Mar 01, 2006  at  04:20 PM
On the other hand, driving in the left lane, except when passing, is evidentally illegal by this law. It seems Georgia went through a crackdown on this practice sometime recently. So yes, the far left driver was breaking the law.

However, the statute in question reads:

(a) Upon all roadways of sufficient width, a vehicle shall be driven upon the right half of the roadway, except as follows:
(1) When overtaking and passing another vehicle proceeding in the same direction under the rules governing such movement;
(2) When an obstruction exists making it necessary to drive to the left of the center of the highway, provided that any person so doing shall yield the right of way to all vehicles traveling in the proper direction upon the unobstructed portion of the highway within such a distance as to constitute an immediate hazard;
(3) Upon a roadway divided into three marked lanes for traffic under the rules applicable thereon; or
(4) Upon a roadway restricted to one-way traffic.

This is a eight-lane highway, so I'm not sure what, exactly, that means to the law. I'm just drawing a blank on a three-lane highway.

How this entitles others to break the law is beyond me, but people get aggressive when they're behind the wheel.
Posted by Charybdis  in  Hell  on  Wed Mar 01, 2006  at  04:39 PM
The reality is that the only people who can say definitively whether what the students did was illegal is a) the Atlanta police department, and then b) a judge.

I'd wager it would be found illegal because I really don't think the authorities would find the even-though-they-were-preventing- anyone-from-passing-them-they-were-doing-the-speed-limit argument convincing.
Posted by The Curator  in  San Diego  on  Wed Mar 01, 2006  at  04:43 PM
Sorry, but I gotta side with the students. Good for them, trying to prove that the 55 mph speed limit is stupid. I don't think they broke any laws at all.
Posted by Sakano  in  Ohio  on  Wed Mar 01, 2006  at  04:49 PM
In the UK, they have adjustable speed limits on the M25 circling London. When the motorway starts to get too full and threatens to create backups on the on-ramps, they actually reduce the speed limit (shown on the electronic signboards overhead). Vehicles travelling slower travel closer together, so you can get more of them on the motorway. Sounds crazy, but it works exceptionally well.

Wikipedia even has an entry about the MIDAS system used to control traffic flow in this way:
M25 - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M25_motorway
MIDAS - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Motorway_Incident_Detection_and_Automatic_Signalling
Posted by Wendy  in  Wellington NZ  on  Wed Mar 01, 2006  at  04:53 PM
Oh, this was just on World News Tonight right after I posted here!
Posted by Sakano  in  Ohio  on  Wed Mar 01, 2006  at  04:58 PM
I wonder how they would have done this experiment in Montana if the state still had their no speed limit (but safe and prudent)law? What would their argument be?

While driving through the state a few years back, I must say it was fun to actually travel in my truck at a high speed without worrying that a state trooper would pull me over.
Posted by Rex  in  San Diego  on  Wed Mar 01, 2006  at  05:00 PM
Here is a story about how split speed limits actually increase accidents. Remember when all these cities were putting in "red light cams" to try to stop people from running red lights, and the only thing that happened was rear end collisions increased as well as money flowing to the government and the business that operated the cameras? That's what is happening with the SUV scheme. The government jumps on the PC and pop culture hate of the SUV under the idea of safer streets and better roads. But the bottom line is it's just a way to increase revenue. If they are going to charge the SUVs more then why not charge the smaller cars less? What do they charge motorcycles? Is this really about being fare or just finding a popular way to raise taxes? What about small businesses that need SUVs and such to condcut business? Gas tax, yearly registration fees, and now the new "momentum" fees are just going to hurt the little guy. Remember money is like food, it works in a chain, you kick one end of the chain, the rest of the chain rattles.
Posted by Lonewatchman  on  Wed Mar 01, 2006  at  07:08 PM
All I have to say about this incident is this: what if an ambulance or some emergency vehicle was stuck in that, and needed to get somewhere quickly?

Regardless of if they were obeying the law or not, it was a stupid way to prove a point and caused many problems. They should have at least allowed people to pass them in some way, especially if they were an emergency vehicle.
Posted by Soldant  in  Australia  on  Wed Mar 01, 2006  at  08:11 PM
Regarding the ambulance/emergency argument: that is what the road's shoulder is for. Police use the shoulder all the time. How do you think they get to an accident on the highway that has caused total gridlock?

Flip the coin on your 'what if' scenario. What if one of those cars stuck in traffic held a terrorist on his way to commit a suicide bombing at an Atlanta-area mall? What if these humble students foiled his plan by unknowingly ensnaring him in an unexpected traffic jam?

What if your cell phone blabbling and swerving caused a cascade of brake lights that turned rush hour into a crawl? At the front of the wave, you'd never even know it was your fault...but it was. And, because of you, that mother of two didn't make it to the hospital and died.

Get real.

What they did was legal. What they did proves a point. Despite its legality, I have little doubt that they would lose a first and possibly second round in court. But, if they wanted to pursue it, they would without a doubt win in the end.
Posted by Aaron  in  Philadelphia  on  Wed Mar 01, 2006  at  08:34 PM
Consider that the fact that most people travel over the speed limit means that most people are breaking the law. In this age of terrorism, our police are empowered in this situation. Think of it. They can pretty much pull over anyone they want, and they don't have to bother with any silly probable cause or anything like that, since all (almost) citizens are criminals anyways. In fact we should probably empower the authorities even more by enacting laws in other areas (besides on the roads) which result in citizens all being guilty of breaking some law, which can be arbitrarily enforced if need be to protect us from terrorists without the need to violate our civil rights.
Posted by reader  on  Wed Mar 01, 2006  at  09:42 PM
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