Archive for Thursday, January 24, 2013

Life in the fast lane

January 24, 2013

Recently I noted that some areas in Texas now have 85 miles per hour speed limits which is probably the highest in the nation. Certainly, speed limits have gone up and down much like a rollercoaster during my life.

Some young people look at me skeptically when I tell them that Kansas did not have a speed limit when I started driving. I believe the law said something like “safe and prudent.” For some that meant a 100 miles per hour. Yes, drivers topped the century mark in the flat, straight road between Garnett and Olathe. I was in college when the 70 miles per hour speed limit came in. Of course, the cars were big and heavy and getting 20 miles per gallon was more than acceptable. Yes, gas was about 21.9 cents per gallon so it wasn’t a problem.

If I remember correctly, the night time speed limit was slower, but in general, traffic on highways sped along at a high rate. In fact, having the fastest car around was a thing of pride for many teenagers. There were heated arguments over which model was fastest and most hot rod lovers usually were loyal to Fords.

In the late 1950s, Kansas adopted a speed limit and police started using radar which changed driving habits. I don’t know for sure, but I believe that Kansas was one of the final states to adopt a speed limit. While, in general, speed limits are not very popular with many motorists, 70 miles per hour was generally accepted as being a fair limit.

All that changed in 1974 with the oil embargo. In an attempt to save fuel, a national 55 miles per hour speed limit was put in place. Those of us who are old enough to remember the stupid “double nickel” speed know how unpopular it was. I would say it was the most despised and violated national law since prohibition. The majority of the motoring public simply didn’t agree with it and a large number didn’t obey it. In my opinion, the strict enforcement of the law by the police led to a great deal of disrespect for authority. Had the limit been set at 60, maybe it would have had more acceptance. In my opinion, the 55 miles per hour speed limit didn’t save gas or promote safety – it just wasted drivers’ time. In fact some states set fines so low it really wasn’t worth enforcing the “double Nickel.”

All of that changed with an increase in speed limits in 1987 and finally, repealing the law in 1995. Now, it is up to the states to set speed limits.

Speed limits date back to colonial America. New Amsterdam (now New York) set a speed limit in 1652. If you rode a horse or drove a wagon at a gallop, you could be cited for speeding. The fine was hefty – about $150 – in today’s currency. Similar laws existed in most cities and President Ulysses Grant got a citation for riding his horse too fast on the streets of Washington, D.C.

Times were changing and so were traffic regulations. There were laws that required drivers to slow down or stop to make sure that they didn’t scare horses. At the turn of t he 20th century, many questioned the future of automobiles and a number of editors wrote that cars weren’t dependable and would never replace horses.

On May 21, 1901, Connecticut passed a state-wide speed limit of 12 miles per hour in cities and 15 miles per hour on “country roads.” In 1903, the state of New York passed the first comprehensive traffic code. A New York City taxi driver is thought to be the first person to receive a traffic ticket for driving too fast. He was flying along at 12 miles per hour in his taxi. Certainly, there have been millions who have faced the same fate over the past century.

As vehicles improved and became safer, speed limits became faster. In addition, roads were improved and multi-lane highways crisscrossed the United States. All of this allowed for faster speed limits.

Unfortunately there are drivers that seem to believe that a speed limit is merely a “suggestion.” These thoughtless oafs weave in and out of traffic lanes endangering other drivers. Sadly, these drivers rarely get caught.

I’m not saying that I couldn’t get a ticket, but since I have returned to driving I have become a slow motorist. When I am on the highway, I set my speed control at a couple of miles below the limit and cruise along. Yes, drivers fly around me and I have received a few “salutes” but that doesn’t bother me. I’m just happy to be driving and obeying the speed limit.

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