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What Speed Limit?
Written December 11, 2002

I'm in my car in the right-hand lane of the expressway, bound for Pittsburgh.  I'm cruising along at 55 miles per hour, as fast as the law allows.  In the other lane to my left, there's a steady stream of traffic passing me, one vehicle after another.  Cars, vans, pickups, trucks . . . they're all moving about 15 mph faster than I am.

I don't mind being passed.  What bothers me is that these other citizens couldn't care less about the law.

Also, they're wasting gas.  Half of them are driving big four-wheel-drive machines, either SUVs or large pickup trucks.  They don't need their off-road capabilities on the expressway.  Few of them need large load capacities, either; in most cases, only the driver is on board.  These behemoths must be burning much more gasoline than I am, especially as their V-8 engines roar to hustle them up and down the hills at 70 mph.

Yet many of these drivers have the nerve to fly wind-whipped American flags from their radio antennas.  Some patriots they are!

By driving a much heavier vehicle than necessary and driving it much faster than necessary, they're polluting our spacious skies.  They're wasting our oil, forcing us to rely even more on foreign suppliers.  And on top of that, they're brazenly flouting the law of our land.

To a leadfoot, what is the message of that tattered flag he flies?  Apparently this:  "I'm an American, and nobody's going to tell me how fast I can drive — especially not my government!"

As a law-abiding driver, I'm in the minority.  A few random statistics will bear this out.

In Iowa in 1996, 71% of all expressway drivers were exceeding the 55 mph speed limit.  Five years later, after the limit had been raised, 47% of them were exceeding 65 mph.

In the state of Washington, on 60-mph Interstate highways during the second quarter of 2002, officials counted 3,769,477 vehicles.  They observed that 2,312,559 of them, or 61%, were speeding.

On the sound moral principle that it's not cheating if you don't get caught, many people install radar detectors.  If the detector is silent, they can drive as fast as they want.

I try to keep out of the way of the outlaws.  I stay in the right lane; they can have the left.  Unfortunately, the speeders spread out and use both lanes, so some of them are in the right lane when they come up behind me.  My stubborn insistence on obeying the law forces them, in order to get around me, to swerve into the left lane and merge with the other hurtling vehicles there.  Then, when the speed limit drops to 45 as the road narrows to a single lane, the drivers caught behind me are forced to hit their brakes to slow down from their 70 to my 45.  It's almost as though I have become a road hazard, merely by driving legally.

Recently, one of my co-workers was bemoaning the "points" that he's accumulated on his driver's license, including two tickets for speeding and one for tailgating.  He recounted the tailgating incident.  A woman was driving about 55 and he couldn't get around her, so he pulled up as close to her bumper as possible, hoping that she would take the hint.  She didn't.  He stayed right behind her for a couple of miles, watching her bumper so intently that he didn't notice the state policeman until the flashing lights came on.

Suppose that he had been able to pass that woman.  Suppose that he had been able to drive those two miles at 70 mph, instead of her pokey pace of 55.  He would have saved himself 28 seconds.  I trust that after arriving at his destination, he would have made good use of that extra half-minute.

But I suspect that aggressive motorists don't drive that way merely to save time.  They drive that way because they are aggressive.  For some reason, they behave like racecar drivers, looking for every split-second advantage that they can get.  "Quick, there's an opening, dive down low and get around this lapped car!"  Or they behave like fighter pilots, thrilling to their airplane's zooming performance.

I prefer to imagine myself piloting an airliner, carefully following all the Air Traffic Control instructions to assure a smooth, comfortable flight that lands safely within 15 minutes of the scheduled arrival time.

I wish that all drivers were like me.  I wish that I could change their attitudes from aggressive selfishness to courteous cooperation.

On the other hand, those speeders probably wish that all drivers were like them, and that fuddy-duddies like me would get off their road and out of their way.

I think they're bad drivers because they constantly break the law.  They think I'm a bad driver because I slow them down and cost them precious seconds.

What to do?  The hosts of public radio's "Car Talk," Tom and Ray Magliozzi, discuss this matter in their book In Our Humble Opinion.  Here are some excerpts.

Tom:  What I see is a continuing deterioration of respect.  Respect for people, authority, laws, rules — and ultimately, in my humble opinion — for civilized society.  We see on our roads a spectacular display of selfishness and lack of respect and consideration for others — all anonymous.  If you don't want to stop for the stop sign, don't.  If you want to drive faster — much faster — than the law allows, go ahead.  You will get away with it most of the time.

Ray:  We're in effect telling our kids it's OK to break the law, and you can pick and choose the laws you want to obey.  Do whatever works for you.

Tom:  Two things have changed in the past few decades.  One is that most people used to behave in accordance with the rules simply because it was "the right thing to do."  Second, it used to be that the scofflaw was admonished for unacceptable behavior.  No more.  The violators now appear to be the establishment, and those attempting to follow the traditional rules are the ones being ostracized.

But the brothers disagree on what we can do.  Tom considers vigilantism:  forming "moving roadblocks" to force the following cars to slow down to the speed limit.  Ray points out that his brother would only infuriate the people behind him and cause more road rage and accidents.  (Besides, the slowdown would be only localized and temporary, and the motorists further back would probably attribute it to traffic congestion rather than to an outbreak of lawfulness.)  Instead, Ray recommends raising the speed limit and then enforcing it for a change.

That might be the answer.  I'll have to admit that these amateur NASCAR drivers who fly past me, weaving in and out of lanes to get that little advantage, are good at it.  They seem to be able to drive safely at 70 in a 45-mph zone, perhaps because they're concentrating as intently as Jeff Gordon or my tailgating colleague.  My complaint is not that they're driving dangerously fast, only that they're disrespecting the law (and incidentally wasting gas).  I could probably keep up with them if it were legal to do so.

So if these drivers want to drive fast, they should go through the proper channels.  They should elect representatives who will raise the speed limit to something they can accept; then they should obey the law.

It would be a step back towards civilization.



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