The automobile and the call of the open road have been a part of James C. Walker’s life since he was a teenager. He became licensed to drive at 16 in Fort Wayne, Ind., sold cars after college, worked for an ad company that sold cars, and even managed the first Chevrolet dealership in Moscow. By his count, Walker, 72, has driven in 26 countries. He’s a life member of the National Motorists Association (NMA), a small group that fought to repeal the nationwide 55-mph speed limit years ago. He serves as executive director of the National Motorists Association Foundation.
In Walker’s view, higher fuel taxes are good, traffic cameras are bad, and speed limits are often set arbitrarily low. Ask him, and he’ll flood your inbox with studies and formulas to support his views, especially on his opinion that traffic cameras are more often about making money than making travel safer.
The following chat has been lightly edited:
Q: What do you drive?
A: A Ford Fiesta ST.
Q: How much do you drive a year?
A: I drive about 20,000 [miles] a year . . . I do drive where a lot of people would fly . . . [I]t doesn’t take much longer to drive considering the hassles of airports today — plus, the fact that when you get there, you’re still going to need wheels . . . I love driving.
Q: What’s the NMA about?
A: The origin of the NMA was to get rid of the national maximum speed limit, which was counterproductive and sold on false pretenses. And we were the lead organization that ultimately brought it down, got it repealed in 1995.
Q: What’s the organization working on now?
A: One of our very major focuses in the last few years has been against automated enforcement, and we’re very slowly winning that battle. There are now, I think, 79 California communities that have dropped red-light cameras or banned them before any were used . . . That’s a state that once had over a 100 red-light camera programs . . . It’s hard to get rid of them though, on a statewide basis, because they make so much money.
Your system in D.C., of course, is wildly profitable — close to a $100 million a year, I think, in some years . . . And the vast majority of those tickets went to safe drivers who weren’t endangering nobody.
Q: What’s the problem with traffic cameras if they make our streets and highways safer?
A: We’re against enforcement for profits, is the simplest way to put it — setting up the parameters of traffic laws and enforcement procedures that are based mostly on revenue and not on safety. We think that’s just flat wrong. And a lot of other people are starting to come around a bit to our way of thinking on that from a different perspective, and the perspective is Ferguson as the poster child.
Q: I take it you mean the scathing report issued by the Justice Department in the aftermath of the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014, that says police unfairly targeted minorities in traffic stops designed to raise revenue?
A: Unnecessary traffic stops are the single most common way that normal citizens engage with police, and traffic tickets based on speed traps are a big part of that. And they should end.
Q: How does your group differ from AAA?
A: AAA is the enemy of the motorist. AAA fights hard to get the lowest posted speed limits they can get away with, that the public will accept. And they’re strong proponents of automated enforcement, with speed and red-light cameras. All of that is about money.
Q: So you’re opposed to all traffic cameras?
A: You could use speed cameras or red-light cameras for safety purposes, but only if the traffic safety engineering parameters are done correctly.
Q: How is that?
A: There’s a scientific way to set speed limits on main roads. You measure the speed of free-flowing traffic on a nice day and you find the 85th percentile — the point at which 85 percent of the drivers are at or below that number, wherever it happens to be. You then round it to the nearest five interval. And that’s your safest possible limit to post.
Q: What does that have to do with speed cameras?
A: You put a speed camera there and it’ll go broke, instantly. Speed cameras run somewhere around $3,000 per month per camera. And it wouldn’t issue enough tickets of people who were far enough over a correctly set limit that the total fines would even pay the cost of the camera. So the only place you find speed cameras, typically, is where the posted limit is 10 or more mph below the safest point.
Q: In other words, you believe that sometimes speed cameras are placed on roadways designed for traffic to move at 40 mph and yet the speed limit is set artificially low at 30 mph?
A: That’s correct. And there’s plenty of them in your area. [On account of having family there, we] were in the D.C. area a lot. And it’s a border-to-border speed trap, basically, on the main roads. And most of the people who get tickets from the cameras are not commuters. They’re not voters in D.C. So it’s awful hard to get rid of it. The same is true with the red-light cameras.
Q: What’s your beef with the red-light cameras?
A: Two things. One thing is the yellow intervals are set too short for the actual perception-reaction times and actual 85th–percentile approach speeds of most drivers. There’s an engineering formula that most everybody uses from the Institute of Transportation Engineers, and one factor is perception-reaction. And they usually use 1.00 second. That’s only good enough for about half of drivers. If you’re going to accommodate 85 percent, you’re need about 1.4 seconds . . . Add it to the 0.4 for the perception-reaction [time], and you’re about a second too short — maybe a little more.
Q: Why not just set longer periods for the yellow lights then?
A: That’s where all the profits come from. You trap safe drivers making split-second, inadvertent violations of the red by 0.4 or 0.6 or 0.8 of a second.
Q: What’s the other problem with red-light cameras in your view?
A: The other factor with red-light cameras in most venues — except in Tennessee, where it’s illegal — [is] they ticket slow-rolling right-on-red turns, where the person didn’t quite stop or stopped just over the line and then proceeded. NHTSA [The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] research says that action is involved in .06 of 1 percent of crashes with injuries or fatalities.
Q: NHTSA has, at least until recently, seemed to play down the role of distracted driving — particularly texting and driving — as a significant factor in sharp increase in traffic deaths. It has emphasized other factors, such as the healthy economy. What’s your view?
A: It’s a little early to tell, but I wouldn’t be surprised [that distracted driving is a factor]. And I don’t think it’s from mostly voice conversations on cellphones. It’s the more complicated factors that require more attention. There are apps like Snapchat that take pictures with your phone and send them to somebody. There have been a couple recent cases . . .[of] people taking pictures of the [speedometer] going over 100 mph.
Q: It sounds like you’re referring to the recent crash in Florida that killed five people, including two children. But wasn’t that the passenger who used Snapchat in that crash, and not the driver? And weren’t they illegally racing?
A: But the driver was probably engaged in the fun, as well. Nothing wrong with a 100 mph, by the way, if it’s in the right place.
Q: You’re kidding, right?
A: I did a vacation in May in Germany, and we drove several hundred miles on unrestricted Autobahns. And the 85th percentile speed was between 85 and 100 mph. It was quite comfortable.
Q: But isn’t speeding one of the biggest factors behind traffic fatalities?
A: It’s not true . . . Speed alone as a cause of the crash is down in the order of 6 or 7 percent. You see real high numbers quoted by people like the [Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) ] for speed-related [crashes]. But if you set the speed limit at 27 percentile so that 73 percent of the people are arbitrarily defined as violators, then an extreme percentage of the crashes — you can call them speed-related. But the person was above the artificially low, posted limit. It’s a false comparison. It’s apples and watermelons.
Q: Then you disagree with an assertion by the IIHS that an estimated 33,000 traffic fatalities can be traced to lifting the federally imposed 55-mph speed limit?
A: That’s correct. It artificially raises the things you can call speed-related [when you set the limit too low].
Q: It’s hard to believe that there isn’t a correlation between higher speeds and more fatalities, especially now that some states have set the speed limit to 80 mph or more.
A: If you have a crash at 70 as opposed to 50, it is more violent. That’s simple physics. But the question is, are you going to have the crash at all? And the safest place to set the speed limit with the fewest crashes is about the 85th percentile speed. And that’s been known for at least 75 years . ..
Q: So you’re saying that if the highway is designed for 85 percent of the people to drive comfortably at 80 mph, it’s not a greater risk to travel at that speed?
A: It’s actually a little lower risk. It’s not a big difference. But it is a slightly lower risk. Now why?
Q: You tell me.
A: Because you tend to decrease the speed variance [between vehicles] . . .[so] you reduce the conflicts between vehicles. You reduce passing . . .[Y]ou tend to get a much better keep-right-except-to-pass behavior. So you get fewer occasions where in frustration you have to pass the person on the right because they’re blocking the left lane.
Q: It sounds as if you believe the speed limit in too many places is set artificially low because of politics, not science?
A: Setting speed limits should never be done by a politician. It should only be done by a trained, traffic safety engineer — [and] that a politician is not leaning on him to do the wrong thing.
Q: What do think President-elect Donald Trump should do in regard to transportation and infrastructure?
A: I would hope we get a transportation secretary who is committed to Eisenhower’s idea of free interstates for mobility and freedom of travel. I really hope we don’t get a toll road expert in that position.
Q: What about NHTSA?
A: I’d like to see someone in [as] the head of NHTSA who is a vehicle safety engineer, somebody who is interested in working on crash avoidance. Make the rules set up so that cars behave better. And they’ve already done a lot of that: [Anti-lock braking] and stability control are pretty much uniform now. Those things are like magic compared to cars when I first started driving.
Q: Should federal government take stronger action against distracted driving? Should manufacturers?
A: I would leave it to the state, in terms of laws. The manufacturers could do something about it . . . When you’re driving, you really ought to drive. In England, you can get a ticket sometimes if you don’t have both hands on the wheel and don’t have a good reason not to. You’re very likely to get a ticket if you’re drinking a Coke.
Q: Did you receive a ticket for that?
A: Nope. But I’ve read about a couple.
Q: You mentioned earlier that you feel the free interstate system is facing a threat? How so?
A: There are a lot of states pushing to try to do more tolls on existing interstates. Not all have succeeded.
Q: Why do states want to put tolls on interstates?
A: [This is] mostly because both the federal and most state legislators lack the [courage] to fix the gas tax for the inflation over the last 20 years . . . A couple states have done it; a couple states have put a serious boost in gas tax.
Q: How much higher should the fuel tax be?
A: If we would stick about 30 cents, give or take a little, in most states that haven’t raised their gas tax, that would about cover . . . what’s been lost to inflation since sometime in the 1990s, when the rates were set.
Q: Do you also support raising and then indexing the fuels tax for inflation?
A: Oh, absolutely. So then you don’t have the same argument 10 or 20 years from now . ..
Q: Why do you prefer the fuels tax to proposed alternatives, such as taxing drivers based on how far they travel every year?
A: We think [the fuel tax] is a fair user fee. It is proportional to usage, and it rewards fuel-efficient vehicles, which a tax-per-mile does not. And so it’s advantageous in the sense of reducing demand for foreign oil.
Q: What do you have against taxing people per mile?
A: It’s not advantageous for fuel economy. It would almost certainly require a tracking system of some kind to do it, and anyone that believes that computer databases are safe is crazy — I mean, literally crazy — as we’ve seen in the past year or so. Nothing is unhackable. Plus, it costs money.
Q: How do you mean?
A: You’d have to set up whole new infrastructure to do a vehicle-per-mile tax . . . [T]he fuel rate tax is an existing system that operates very cheaply, something in the order of 1 percent. The cost to collect a vehicle’s per-mile tax would be much higher.
Q: But as vehicles become more fuel-efficient, won’t fuel tax revenue decline further?
A: You can adjust for that the same as you can for inflation. There’s a lot of push for a vehicle [per-]mile tax, but you will get double-dipped, among other things, if that happens.
Q: Don’t you think a vehicle-per-mile tax could be adopted in place of the fuel tax?
A: Not hardly. Taxes are the most difficult things to get rid of once instituted. My favorite poster child on that was — remember when the tax on long-distance telephone calls was removed 15 years ago or so? Do you know the origin of that tax? It was to pay for the Spanish-American War in 1898.
Q: What’s your view of using some of that fuel-tax revenue for mass transit?
A: I think in most cases it’s not much different than stealing.
Q: But if those highway funds are paying for commuter rail or a subway that takes people off the highway, isn’t that like expanding its capacity?
A: Mass transit works very well in some places. It certainly does in D.C., although you’re having a fair amount of trouble with the Metro. But in terms of moving people in and out of downtown, it’s pretty efficient. The Chicago “L” works very well. The New York subway works very well. A lot of major cities have a decent transit system that actually functions for enough people . . . In smaller places — [that’s] not true.
Q: How else should we raise infrastructure revenue?
A: You can also raise registration fees. I don’t mind a bit of that if they’re really low, and they are in some states.
Q: What do you think of the move toward creating self-driving vehicles?
A: It sounds good, but I think we’re a very long ways from truly autonomous vehicles. And I think the partially autonomous ones are likely to be dangerous. There has already been a couple of fatalities and a couple of other pretty serious crashes.
Q: But wasn’t driving risky in the early days of its development?
A: True. But my problem with semiautonomous is it’s going to lull the driver into not paying very much attention. And then when something happens, and they should take control back, their mind will be somewhere else.
Q: What do you make of ride-sharing services such as Uber or Lyft?
A: Oh, I think that’s a good idea. If you can get more people per car, that helps. And if you have fewer total cars for people who don’t own one, who use something like Zipcar, that’s fine . . . There are people in major metro areas who don’t use a car very often; it probably makes sense. That’s not true of most of America, in terms of area.
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