Slower speeds save gas, but how 'bout lives?

May 08, 2006|By KEVIN COWHERD

The new signs on the highway say: "Slower speeds save gas."

Nice slogan, if not exactly catchy.

Happens to be true, too.

But here's another sign they should put up: "Driving 55 mph? Are you nuts?"

Or maybe this one would be better: "Drive slower and people will hate your guts."

I say this because of a little experiment conducted the other day on the Baltimore Beltway, that 51.5-mile ribbon of congested, always-under-construction hell that encircles the city.

The experiment was to see if it's actually possible to travel at slower, gas-saving speeds without getting killed by all the other cars doing 75, 80 and more.

So I drove the entire length of the Beltway - around the Inner Loop, from Towson back to Towson - at the posted speed limit of 55.

And I've got news for you.

My hands are still shaking.

OK, I say I did 55 the whole way.

But that's not entirely true.

I actually sped up to 60 on three occasions to pass cars driving even slower - one was a geezer in a Grand Marquis, wearing the requisite huge black-bug sunglasses, which gives you an idea of the warp speed we're talking about here.

And there was a stretch of Interstate 695 past Essex lined with construction cones, with a posted speed limit of 45, which, of course, I adhered to, being a decent, law-abiding citizen.

But other than that, I drove 55.

And I stayed in the far right lane, the way you're supposed to when you're chugging along like an 85-year-old nun.

My conclusion?

Sure, you might save a few cents in gas if you drive at slower speeds.

But dropping down to 55 when everyone else is roaring past like it's the last lap of the Daytona 500 seems like a great way to end up in the obituaries.

Anyway, my Beltway adventure took place on a weekday morning, well after rush hour, as I had no wish to be slammed into by some overly caffeinated yuppie in a BMW who's yakking on his cell or stabbing the keys on his BlackBerry on the drive to work.

(Speaking of which, did you see that big study last week? The one that said tired, distracted drivers are more likely to be involved in accidents than well-rested drivers who concentrate on the road? Wow, a shocker, huh? Next they'll come out with a study that says kids who run with scissors are more likely to trip and cut themselves than kids who don't.)

Things got ugly in a hurry.

I merged into traffic off Dulaney Valley Road around 10 a.m. and was passed by about 20 cars within the first couple of minutes.

This, of course, was to be expected - nobody except some idiot newspaperman looking for a cheap column drives that slow on the Beltway anymore.

But it wasn't the passing cars that made me nervous.

It was the cars and big SUVs roaring up behind me.

It was the 18-wheelers rumbling inches from my bumper, belching great clouds of black exhaust smoke, their air-brakes squealing whenever I slowed for another car merging into my lane.

It was the crazies in the cars with tinted windows doing 80 while weaving in and out of traffic, then slamming on their brakes behind me when they realized: "Oh, yeah, this is my exit ... "

Those are the things that made me nervous.

Within 10 minutes, before I'd even reached the Rosedale exit, 100 cars had passed me.

So I stopped counting the passing cars.

Instead, I concentrated on staying alive and not getting rear-ended off the highway.

I felt like an Amish guy in a horse-drawn wagon. Except Amish guys in horse-drawn wagons probably go faster than I was going.

OK, I mentioned that I somehow managed to pass three cars on this journey - one being the old guy with the heavy-duty shades in the Grand Marquis.

But the first car I passed, just before the Essex exit, was a Jeep Wrangler driven by a young guy who was - ta-daaa! - yakking on his cell phone.

"Didn't you read the study!" I screamed, but probably he didn't hear me.

Anyway, past the Dundalk exits I chugged, then over the scenic Key Bridge - if you like the sight of smokestacks and gray industrial storage tanks, have I got a view for you, pal - and onto the southern loop of the Beltway.

Here, traffic whizzed past like it was the Autobahn.

Just before the Security Boulevard exit, I passed my last vehicle, a wheezing Public Storage truck laden with kitchen cabinets, visible through the missing side panels.

This stupid truck was going so slow, the Amish guy in the horse-drawn wagon would have lapped him twice.

An hour after first starting out, I was back in Towson, which looked like Paris after the grime, burnt-tire casings and blacktop monotony of the Beltway.

Yep, go a little slower, save a little gas - it's a nice thought.

But try it on the Beltway, and it'll take years off your life.

They don't seem to have gotten the message out there.

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