55 miles per hour is a travesty on Maryland's rural interstates

Gwinn Owens

March 28, 1991|By Gwinn Owens

ON A RECENT drive along Interstate 95, I decided to measure exactly the extent to which Maryland's 55-mile-an-hour law is observed. The method was simple: From the toll gate near Perryville to the Route 22 intersection, a distance of about 10 miles, I set my cruise control to 60 miles an hour. For that brief stretch I kept account of how many cars I passed and how many passed me.

The result was predictable: Eighteen cars and two trucks passed me; I passed two cars. (Bear in mind that I was driving 60, not 55.) It was predictable, I say, because it merely confirmed what everybody knows -- that the average speed on Maryland interstates is nearly 10 miles above the limit.

The law says that drivers in Maryland must not exceed 55 miles an hour. The law is a joke; 65 is what people drive. For this reason, advocates of the 55-mile limit (I was one of them) must now realize they are wrong. An ignored and unenforceable law is worse than no law.

On two other recent occasions my travels took me to other states where the speed limit has been raised to 65 miles -- I-81 in West Virginia and I-95 in Virginia. My assumption had been that if the limit is 55 mph, people will drive 65, and if it's 65, they'll drive 75.

Clearly this is not the case. On these highways in Virginia and West Virginia most cars cruise along at the limit. Certainly there are a few who drive beyond it, but in general traffic moves easily at a consistent 65.

What this seems to indicate is that motorists in general find 65 to be an optimum, comfortable speed for newer cars (which aren't designed for 55 mph) on well-engineered highways. In states where this speed is permitted, they choose 65. In states where it is not, they choose it just the same. In effect, the speed has been selected by the driver, rather than by the law.

In Maryland, what happens to the drivers who choose to respect the law? In fact, they find life on the road intolerable. They are tailgated constantly, often by tractor-trailers whose presence through the rear-view mirror can be terrifying. Invariably, they find the price of being law-abiding is not worth the aggravation. They join the majority and go with the flow at 65.

The 55 mph limit was enacted by Congress during the 1974 gas crisis, primarily to save scarce fuel and only coincidentally as a safety measure. Eventually, as gas became plentiful again, the safety aspect became the primary justification for the law. This is why, until recently, I supported it.

There is some evidence that the lower speed limit did save lives when it was more strictly enforced. But the enforcement was attempted on interstate highways designed for 70 mph speeds. (This was the case on the Baltimore-Washington section of I-95 and I-70 west of Baltimore.) Now that the 55 mph limit is universally ignored, the continued reduction in highway fatalities has to be ascribed to other factors -- perhaps greater use of seat and shoulder belts.

Maryland should give up the pretense that there is a 55 mph limit on rural interstates, raise the limit to 65 and concentrate enforcement on the occasional nut doing 80 or 85.

In truth, one of my own nightmares is that after driving 52 years with only one speeding ticket (that in my 41st driving year), I will be flagged down by a Maryland state trooper for doing 56 miles an hour. Under Maryland law, even if I were the slowest car on the road -- quite likely, at that speed -- I would have no defense.

Gwinn Owens is the retired editor of this page.

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