Man with veto presides in traffic court, hearing witnesses argue about 10 mph

May 22, 1991|By James Bock | James Bock,Sun Staff Correspondent

ANNAPOLIS -- Sam Brown, a broadcast engineer from Laurel, sees a 65-mph speed limit on rural interstates as his right as a Maryland consumer.

Dr. Carl A. Soderstrom, a trauma specialist in Baltimore, views the higher maximum speed as a menace to public health.

Both men traveled to Annapolis yesterday -- on roads with top speeds of 55 mph -- to debate the issue as Gov. William Donald Schaefer held a traffic court of sorts at the State House.

The occasion was a rare veto hearing for a bill that would give the governor the right to set a 65-mph speed limit on 160 miles of rural interstate highways in Maryland.

After witnesses crammed a legislative session's worth of speed-limit pros and cons into an hour, Mr. Schaefer gave no hint about what he would do. His decision is expected Friday.

"I was impressed with both sides," the governor said. "Obviously, I'm having great difficulty with this bill. No question about it. The hour of decision is almost here."

The governor's office has received more than 3,000 calls and letters on the issue, the most attention any piece of legislation has gotten this year, said Page Boinest, a spokeswoman for Mr. Schaefer.

Interest perked up after GEICO Corp., Maryland's largest auto insurer, said a speed limit of 65 mph would drive up insurance premiums, she said.

Mr. Brown, one of a passel of pro-65 mph witnesses organized by Delegate Dana Lee Dembrow, D-Montgomery, the bill's sponsor, told the governor yesterday: "The main question is, what is the will of the people? . . . If people thought 55 [mph] was a good idea, they'd be driving it."

After the hearing, the 26-year-old Mr. Brown said he got involved with the National Motorists Association because he was "trying to right a wrong."

Cars and highways are built for driving at 65 miles an hour, he said, but "people are getting tickets and insurance premiums are going up" because the 55-mph speed limit -- adopted in the energy-conscious mid-1970s as a way to save fuel -- was unreasonably low.

"People dying in crashes is horrible, but that doesn't prove that having a speed limit of 65 causes crashes," he said.

"It's really an insurance companies-get-rich issue. The consumer being ripped off."

The witnesses against the higher speed limit were led by August P. Alegi, group vice president of GEICO, which has mounted a campaign against the bill.

Mr. Alegi cited studies to show that a limit of 65 mph would mean more speed-related crashes. That, in turn, would mean higher premiums for auto insurance policyholders, he said.

Dr. Soderstrom, who has treated crash victims for 11 years at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center, told the governor that the bill's provision for a pilot project to gauge the effects of raising the speed limit amounted to a "human experiment" that medical researchers would deem "unethical."

Afterward, the doctor said working at the Shock Trauma Center had made him aware of the human and financial costs of auto crashes -- not just the deaths, but the disabling injuries as well.

He said it would be at cross-purposes for a governor who had helped to build the state's acclaimed trauma system to sign a bill allowing a 65-mph speed limit.

"We have a trauma system that promotes life, and this is a bill that promotes death," he said.

Sam Brown remains unconvinced that there's a death wish behind a 65-mph speed limit. He drives 30,000 miles a year, cruises in the upper 60s on rural interstates where he knows the police speed traps and says he's never gotten a ticket.

But Dr. Soderstrom wonders: What's the rush?

"Maybe it wouldn't hurt from a philosophical point of view if we slowed society down and smelled the roses a little," he said.

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