Post no speed limits

Willaim A. Harper

October 22, 1990|By William A. Harper

HEADED for Salisbury, I was moping along on Route 50 at about 60 miles per hour. Thinking about life in the fast lane, I suddenly realized that just about everyone was passing me on the left at 65 to 70 mph. Posted speed limits of 55 were totally ignored.

A Perdue chicken truck, one of those six-wheelers loaded with fowl that smelled likewise, roared by at such great speed that feathers were flying every which way. (No doubt the drivers for Perdue use the legendary heavy-footed Frank as their role model.)

What I was experiencing confirmed once again my belief that speed laws are useless and the enforcement thereof a waste of tax dollars -- except perhaps in school zones and residential communities. On the open highway, 55 or 65, whatever the posted limit, deters very few people from driving at what they believe to be a safe speed for all concerned. In short, the people have taken over the highways and for the most part are effectively policing themselves.

I have researched the matter on the interstates and beltways of Maryland, New Jersey and New York in the East, as well as in the great Midwestern states of Ohio, Indiana and Iowa. The results are the same everywhere. People simply do not cotton to speed laws. Neither do they have any interest in maiming or killing each other.

Until I returned to the Eastern Shore a year or so ago, I was living in exile in Iowa, working for the University of Iowa. On my daily trip to the campus I took a short cut from the outskirts of Iowa City via Interstate 80. Truckers and other transients drove the interstate at a consistent 65 miles per hour until the state made 65 the legal limit. Then the drivers zipped up to 75 mph.

Seventy-five is probably reasonably safe on open lengths of highway where vehicles are sometimes few and far between -- though there aren't many stretches like that left in the country. It may be quite safe, for example, to drive at the upper limits of the average speedometer on the highway between Beaver Crossing, Neb., and Brush, Colo., a distance of maybe 300 miles. There's absolutely no place like that in Maryland.

Don't get me wrong. I am not advocating lawlessness on the asphalt. There remains an extremely important role for the State Police to play. That is to reduce reckless and drunken driving, both of which may occasionally involve but not be limited to speeding. I put in the reckless category, which often involves drunks, people who cut in and out of traffic at random, those who tailgate and drivers who ignore warning signs in construction zones. Truckers, of course, are notorious for trying to nudge vehicles out of the way with their huge rigs. They should have new hours: 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.

I would include among the reckless those who read government reports and talk into mobile telephones when they should be giving full attention to their driving.

Of course, the whole question of speed limits may become moot before we hit the new century. Traffic has become so heavy that there's simply not room for everybody who wants to tool around a beltway or zip over to Annapolis, particularly at peak traffic times which, today, is most of the time. Traffic jams, the rule rather than the exception, often make it impossible to drive at more than 25 or 30 mph over long segments of major routes.

On a recent trip to New York, I found traffic moving at a crawl for at least 30 of the 70 miles I drove on the New Jersey Turnpike due to road construction and a fender-bender or two. Not too long ago, I was caught in a 2,000-mile backup from Alexandria, Va., to Palm Beach, Fla. (or so it seemed).

To make an 8 a.m. appointment in Baltimore the other day, I left Washington, where I had spent the night, at 5 a.m. Traffic was so heavy, even at the early hour, that for most of the way I could go no faster than 50 or 55, though there were no jams.

The other day I was traveling on the Eastern Shore at my safe speed limit, which is between 55 and 60, when I was passed by a Baptist Church bus with a load of gray-haired older folks, probably off to a prayer meeting. The driver was obviously divinely inspired to break the speed limit as we know it, thus validating my theory that safe driving is not a matter of speed but a matter of smarts.

So post no speed limits. We don't need them.

William A. Harper is a communications consultant. He writes ? from Fenwick Island, Del.

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