Reaching Our Limits

DAVE BARRY'S TO WIT

January 07, 1996|By DAVE BARRY

Recently the federal government, as part of its ongoing effort to become part of the same solar system as the rest of us, decided to eliminate the National Pretend Speed Limit.

As you are aware, for many years the National Pretend Speed Limit was 55 miles per hour (metric equivalent: 378 kilograms per hectare). This limit was established back during the Energy TTC Crisis, when America went through a scary gasoline shortage caused by the fact that for about six straight months, everybody in America spent every waking moment purchasing gasoline. Remember? We all basically went insane. The instant our car's fuel gauge got down to fifteen-sixteenths of a tank, we raced to a service station and spent a couple of hours waiting in line with hundreds of other gasoline-obsessed Americans.

So anyway, the Energy Crisis came to the attention of the federal government, which, swinging into action as only our federal government can, told everybody to get swine-flu shots.

No, wait, that was another crisis. What the federal government did in this particular crisis was declare, in 1974, a National Pretend Speed Limit of 55. This has been strictly observed everywhere except on the actual roads, where the real speed limit -- the one actually enforced by the police -- is a secret, unposted number ranging between 63 and 78, unless an individual police officer does not care for the way you look, in which case the speed limit is zero.

The result is that, for over 20 years, virtually everybody in the United States has been violating the speed limit except for Ralph Nader and elderly people wearing hats.

So finally our government, facing reality, has decided to abolish the National Pretend Speed Limit and let individual states decide how fast drivers can go. The most interesting response so far has come from the extremely rural state of Montana (Official Motto: "Moo"), which announced that there would be no speed limit during daylight hours. I was frankly amazed when I read this in the newspaper. I mean, I am not a legal scholar, but to me "no speed limit" means that, theoretically, you can go 400 miles per hour, right?

If that were true, Montana would immediately become an extremely popular destination for your average guy driver on vacation with his family, because guys like to cover a tremendous amount of ground. A guy in Vacation Driving Mode prefers not to stop the car at all except in the case of a bursting appendix, and even then he's likely to say, "Can you hold it a little longer? We're only 157 miles from Leech World!" So if there really were no speed limit, a vacationing guy with the right kind of car -- by which I mean "the kind of car that has to be stopped

with a parachute" -- could cover all of Montana in approximately an hour.

In an effort to check this out, I called Montana, which has an area code and everything, and spoke with Steve Barry, deputy chief of the Montana Highway Patrol.

"Can people drive 400 miles per hour up there?" I asked.

He told me that in all honesty the answer was no. He said that while there was "no theoretical upper speed limit," there was a practical one, determined by police officers in the field, based on factors such as traffic density, road conditions and type of vehicle. So I asked him: What if all the conditions were perfect? What would be the absolute fastest you could legally go? What is the real Montana speed limit? Barry answered that, if you pinned him down, his estimate would be around 100 miles per hour.

"At that point," he said, "the majority of the citizens at large would say that's too fast for conditions out here."

So you vacationing guys are going to have to budget four hours for Montana. But this is still an improvement, and I'd like to see other areas of the country make a similar effort to have realistic traffic laws. For example, right now the "legal" speed limit in downtown Manhattan is 30. This is absurd. This is the speed limit that Manhattan drivers observe on the sidewalk. On the streets of Manhattan, the actual observed speed limits are as follows:

Traveling uptown or downtown: 125 miles per hour, unless you have a chance to hit a pedestrian, in which case you may go 150.

Traveling across town: Nobody has ever successfully traveled across Manhattan in a motor vehicle.

I'd also like to see speed limits that take into account what song you're listening to on the radio. Ideally, if a police officer pulled you over for doing, say, 95 mph in a 75 zone, and you could prove to him that you were listening to the Isley Brothers' version of "Twist and Shout," he would not only have to let you off, but he would also be required, by law, to sing along with you. It's something for all of us to look forward to as our ever-evolving nation heads toward the 21st Century, traveling way too fast for conditions.

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