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Why Do Car Speedometers List Speeds That Are Way Over the Legal Limit?

Judging by their speedometers, you would think that most modern automobiles can easily hit 160 miles per hour. Yet, unless you’re a NASCAR vet, you probably have never come close to actually going that fast. Let’s talk tickets: In the U.S. there isn’t a single stretch of highway where one can legally exceed 85 mph. So why do car companies build models that can double this velocity in the first place?

Well, the short answer is “they don’t,” as this clip points out:

According to former Nissan executive Larry Dominique, “Eighty percent of cars on the road are not designed for and will not go over 110 miles per hour,” regardless of what your speedometer claims. Moreover, tires usually can’t long endure being pushed over 130 miles per hour.

So why does the speedometer of your dawdling family sedan or minivan boast of high speeds that it simply can’t match?

There’s a small matter of salesmanship. To unsuspecting folks shopping for a new ride, higher maximum velocities may imply stronger engines. Thus, from a marketing perspective, exaggerated speedometers make total sense. But does this deceiving practice come at a price? Fearing that inflated numbers encouraged reckless driving, National Highway Safety Administration leader Joan Claybrook spearheaded a new rule which prohibited speedometers from reading above 85 miles per hour in 1979 (this was repealed two years later).

Take a peek at certain older speedometers, and you might notice that the number 55 is circled. That’s because, during a 1974 standoff with OPEC, President Richard Nixon issued a nationwide speed limit of 55 mph which he hoped would promote fuel efficiency. Though this measure, dubbed the Emergency Energy Conservation Act, would be tweaked and modified in subsequent years, it wasn’t fully repealed until 1995.

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Big Questions
What Causes Sinkholes?
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

This week, a sinkhole opened up on the White House lawn—likely the result of excess rainfall on the "legitimate swamp" surrounding the storied building, a geologist told The New York Times. While the event had some suggesting we call for Buffy's help, sinkholes are pretty common. In the past few days alone, cavernous maws in the earth have appeared in Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, and of course Florida, home to more sinkholes than any other state.

Sinkholes have gulped down suburban homes, cars, and entire fields in the past. How does the ground just open up like that?

Sinkholes are a simple matter of cause and effect. Urban sinkholes may be directly traced to underground water main breaks or collapsed sewer pipelines, into which city sidewalks crumple in the absence of any structural support. In more rural areas, such catastrophes might be attributed to abandoned mine shafts or salt caverns that can't take the weight anymore. These types of sinkholes are heavily influenced by human action, but most sinkholes are unpredictable, inevitable natural occurrences.

Florida is so prone to sinkholes because it has the misfortune of being built upon a foundation of limestone—solid rock, but the kind that is easily dissolved by acidic rain or groundwater. The karst process, in which the mildly acidic water wears away at fractures in the limestone, leaves empty space where there used to be stone, and even the residue is washed away. Any loose soil, grass, or—for example—luxury condominiums perched atop the hole in the ground aren't left with much support. Just as a house built on a weak foundation is more likely to collapse, the same is true of the ground itself. Gravity eventually takes its toll, aided by natural erosion, and so the hole begins to sink.

About 10 percent of the world's landscape is composed of karst regions. Despite being common, sinkholes' unforeseeable nature serves as proof that the ground beneath our feet may not be as solid as we think.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

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Big Questions
How Are Speed Limits Set?
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When driving down a road where speed limits are oppressively low, or high enough to let drivers get away with reckless behavior, it's easy to blame the government for getting it wrong. But you and your fellow drivers play a bigger a role in determining speed limits than you might think.

Before cities can come up with speed limit figures, they first need to look at how fast motorists drive down certain roads when there are no limitations. According to The Sacramento Bee, officials conduct speed surveys on two types of roads: arterial roads (typically four-lane highways) and collector streets (two-lane roads connecting residential areas to arterials). Once the data has been collected, they toss out the fastest 15 percent of drivers. The thinking is that this group is probably going faster than what's safe and isn't representative of the average driver. The sweet spot, according to the state, is the 85th percentile: Drivers in this group are thought to occupy the Goldilocks zone of safety and efficiency.

Officials use whatever speed falls in the 85th percentile to set limits for that street, but they do have some wiggle room. If the average speed is 33 mph, for example, they’d normally round up to 35 or down to 30 to reach the nearest 5-mph increment. Whether they decide to make the number higher or lower depends on other information they know about that area. If there’s a risky turn, they might decide to round down and keep drivers on the slow side.

A road’s crash rate also comes into play: If the number of collisions per million miles traveled for that stretch of road is higher than average, officials might lower the speed limit regardless of the 85th percentile rule. Roads that have a history of accidents might also warrant a special signal or sign to reinforce the new speed limit.

For other types of roads, setting speed limits is more of a cut-and-dry process. Streets that run through school zones, business districts, and residential areas are all assigned standard speed limits that are much lower than what drivers might hit if given free rein.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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