The casual driver on Interstate 95 between Baltimore and Washington probably didn't notice yesterday afternoon when Maryland officially bumped the speed limit on that stretch of highway from 55 mph to 65 mph.
That's because most drivers, oblivious as ever to the posted speed, continued to motor along at the same rates they always have -- many at more than 60 mph and some at more than 70 mph.
"What speed limit? Seventy-five [mph] is what everyone is doing," John Starkey of Wheelersburg, Ohio, said as he took a break at the southbound I-95 rest stop in Savage.
As it turns out, one of the reasons the state raised the speed limit was that many lead-footed drivers were ignoring the old 55-mph signs.
Fifteen percent of motorists were found to be exceeding 70 mph along that highly congested corridor recently, and the average speed was 60 mph.
Yesterday, most drivers interviewed at the Savage rest stop approved -- at least mildly -- of the higher speed limit. They said 65 mph is more realistic and more likely to be obeyed, an argument also advanced by state highway officials.
"It's better. It's safer to go 65 than 55 mph," said Jaspare Tirabassi, a Silver Spring resident who delivers auto parts in Maryland and Virginia.
Not everyone agreed. A few drivers said the new speed limit is dangerous, a position shared by many traffic safety advocates.
From about 4: 30 p.m. to 5: 30 p.m. between Baltimore and Washington, traffic was safe for the most part. Most drivers were going about 65 mph and were well spaced.
But it didn't take long for Maryland Trooper Sean Byrne to find a driver exceeding the new 65-mph limit. As he cruised north on I-95 in Howard County at the start of rush hour, a red Suzuki with South Carolina plates quickly caught his eye.
"You see that?" said Byrne, a trooper out of the Waterloo barracks in Jessup for about a year. "I'm going 75, and I can't catch up. And it has changed lanes for a third time."
Byrne pulled the Suzuki over just south of Route 100 and cited the driver, a 25-year-old student at the University of Maryland, College Park, for going 80 mph.
She got a $70 ticket. Had she been stopped yesterday, when the speed limit was 55, the infraction would have cost her $135.
Warnings also given
Hers was the only ticket Byrne issued during a one-hour patrol yesterday. He gave warnings to a driver for tailgating and another for speeding at 70 mph.
"We're looking for the aggressive driver," Byrne said, "the ones not only exceeding the speed limit, but following too closely."
Studies have found that highway fatalities often increase when states raise their speed limits above 55 mph.
In Maryland recently, fatalities rose sharply on 65-mph highways RTC during the second year of the higher speeds, although state highway officials say the increase in fatalities was unrelated to the speed limit.
Along I-95 yesterday, David Sydney, driving to Florida from his home in Connecticut, said he didn't like the new speed limit because of safety concerns.
"I think it's too fast for that road," he said. "It's a death trap, but life is cheap around Washington."
Sydney, a retired attorney, said he prefers to drive 55 mph. "What's the big rush?" he said.
A man from Prince George's County who asked not to be identified also lamented the loss of the 55 mph limit. He commutes daily on I-95 for a few miles.
"They were going 65 mph [before], and now that they've kicked the limit up to 65, they'll go 75 or 80," he said.
The higher speed limit reflects what traffic engineers and many motorists already believe to be a safe and comfortable speed, a state highway official said.
Signs often ignored
"People do not pay attention to signs as much as to what they see and their own feelings as they go down the highway," said Thomas Hicks, director of the SHA's Office of Traffic and Safety.
"Most drivers will drive at a safe and reasonable speed based on conditions."
There were five fatalities on I-95 between the beltways in 1995, two in 1996 and three during the first half of 1997.
Hicks said highway officials also are considering raising the speed limit above 55 mph on parts of Routes 100 and 32, east-west routes in Howard and Anne Arundel counties.
Although state police patrols were not increased yesterday, the agency promised strict enforcement of the new speed limit.
"If you drive above 65, your chances of being stopped and issued a citation are great. There is no cushion. There will be strict and immediate enforcement in the 65 mph zone," said Sgt. Laura Lu Herman.
On patrol yesterday, Byrne drove mostly at a steady 65 in the high-speed lane. Most other drivers slowed down in deference.
'Setting an example'
"I'm doing my job not only by stopping people and writing tickets, but by being on the road and setting an example," he said.
Just then, a white Pontiac passed him on the right. "I'm doing 65 and he's passing me," Byrne said.
"I'm going to stop him, just to let him know that if he's passing a trooper, he's probably speeding."
Byrne pulled the driver over on the left side of southbound I-95, just south of Route 32. The 35-year-old driver had a clean record, and the trooper let him off with a warning.
"He doesn't have any points, and I'll try and keep it that way," Byrne said, adding a cautionary note: "I hope this gets him to slow down."
Pub Date: 12/16/97