The Need for Speed: A Nation of Drivers at Risk
By Richard Mann
We are nation of people at risk; we have a national passion for speed. We drive way too fast. Has it always been this way, or is has this almost universal disregard for speed limits, for common-sense safety, developed in recent years?
Before the oil crisis in the 70s, highway speed limits were set at 60 or 65 miles per hour, with 70 mph limits on freeways only. Because we drove on all kinds of roads at these speeds, because we’d never been free to go faster, and because we had tight enforcement of speed limits, we had a healthy respect for high speeds. When we went 70 mph on the freeway, we knew we were flying low.
The Double-Nickel Speed Limit
When the 55 mph limit hit, did we slow down? Yes, somewhat. As we became familiar with the double-nickel limit, however, we sped faster and faster over the limit. Where 5 mph over the limit in the old days was an informal enforcement leeway, plus-10 (or plus-9) became the new standard–at least, it did here in Utah. We drove 10 over because we all knew that 55 was too slow. We knew it was an artificial limit with no basis in driving safety-related reality.
So our speeders would travel at 64 to 65 mph, knowing that they were safe at that speed. We became accustomed to driving 10 mph over the limit.
Freeway Limits Go to 65 MPH
Then reform came. First, we got 55/65 mph splits on the freeway. We could drive 65 mph in rural areas on the freeway. On the 65-mph sections, accustomed driving 9 or 10 mph over the limit, we almost automatically started to drive at 75 mph on the freeway. Now, we were moving pretty fast. Faster, in fact, than drivers who learned to drive in the 70s and 80s were accustomed to. Faster than they were trained to drive. Faster than they realized they were going. Faster than they understood. They knew that plus-9 or plus-10 was OK–it always had been, hadn’t it?
We forgot that 75 mph was faster than the Interstate highways were designed and built for. When we built the Interstate system, we planned them for 70 mph travel. Now, many years later, those highways are not in the same condition they were when they were new. Many are in poor condition–bad enough that their designers would shudder at the thought of going over the original limit of 70 mph. And the designers never anticipated the incredibly busy load of traffic these highways carry today.
The speed limits stayed at 65 for many years, long enough to become desensitized to our speed. On the 55 mph sections, few slowed down. The normal speed became 65 to 75 mph.
The 75 MPH Limit
Now, in recent years, the limit has come up to 75 mph, where the states choose to allow that speed. A limit of 75 mph! We are now speeding–even at the speed limit–down these less-than-optimal-condition roads at speeds in excess of their original design intention. And we’re doing it in crowds of vehicles much more closely packed than any highway designer ever dreamed.
But, of course, that’s not the worst of it yet. We have a whole generation of new drivers who have always known that speed limits–enforcement-wise–are always plus-9 or plus-10. How fast are they driving? Yes, 84 to 85 mph.
We are driving at 85 mph on old, decrepit highways in close-packed crowds of cars without any real knowledge of or respect for the incredible speed at which things happen when we are flying low.
Do we allow the requisite stopping distance between cars? No. On a recent trip up I-15 from St. George, Utah, at 85 mph, I counted–on a three-lane section–14 cars in the 3 lanes ahead of me within ten car lengths of me. Aside and behind me were another 10 cars.
And people–in cars and trucks–were regularly passing me!
We are driving too fast on roads not designed for these speeds. We believe that we can drive up to 10 mph over the speed limit without danger. Even young Highway Patrol officers don’t question the wisdom of this. We’re driving 85 mph with the same safety precautions we used at 65 mph in the double-nickel era. We use the same following distances. We use the same proportionate speeds on wet roads. We have the same disregard for warning signs. (There is bad bump on I-15 south of Nephi, Utah, on a bumpy stretch of construction-material-experiment highway. A sign warns motorists to slow to 50 mph. Does anyone slow down? No.)
Today, speed is even more dangerous than it once was. Now we have cell phones and soothing stereo music (or booming-bass cacophonies) to distract us. In the old days, the wind through open windows helped keep us awake. Today, we glide along in air-conditioned comfort, totally unaware of the power and force of our hurtling vehicles.
The potential for horrendous multiple-car pile-ups is frighteningly large and unfortunately real. We are in mortal danger.
People say the new 75 mph limit just legalizes or blesses what we were doing anyway. True. But the assumption that we would continue as before is false–we are now driving fully 20 mph faster than when the limit was 55 not too many years ago–and we’re doing it along with a generation of drivers who determine following distances and take precautions as if they were still driving 55 mph.
Heaven help us.
About the Author:
Richard Mann is the author of over 500 articles published in national and regional print magazines, as well as a prolific and popular author of material all over the Web. He writes columns on professional writing advice and taxes for writers. His print writing has been mostly in computer magazines and publications for writers, but his Web work covers the whole gamut of topics from relationships to beans. He edits the Bean Lover’s site on Suite 101 and has worked as a content editor for a commercial Web site. Rich lives in Roy, Utah, with his wife, two kids, and his grandson. He’s been a CPA with a large international firm, a CFO with several businesses, and is now an instructor at a tech school in Ogden, Utah.