FWD: Highways as Speedways

Rohit Khare (rohit@uci.edu)
Tue, 28 Dec 1999 22:45:15 -0800

[Anyone have Hennessy's Web site addr handy? Mail me off-list... RK

December 27, 1999

Highways as Speedways? Drivers Push the


Early last Monday morning, Mathew Hennessy, mild-mannered computer
programmer, was driving down the Saw Mill Parkway toward Manhattan at
100 miles an hour.

Inside his Jeep Grand Cherokee, things were calm. An old song by the
Cure played low on the radio as Mr. Hennessy, 27, from New Rochelle,
sank into his leather seat, gripped the wheel and watched rush-hour
traffic stream past his window in one long Manet-like smudge.

"Sometimes you get a guy who isn't looking, and you have to do an
avoidance maneuver," Mr. Hennessy, who says he can't talk while
driving fast, later explained.

"Or you have to go faster to get around them."

Though Mr. Hennessy is clearly an extremist -- he maintains a World
Wide Web page that gives how-to tips on speeding -- he is one of a
growing number of American drivers who, according to traffic experts,
are pushing highway speeds to new heights each year.

Steering bigger and more powerful cars and exploiting increasingly lax
police enforcement, more drivers than ever are treating speed limits
as suggestions -- and not very good ones at that, the experts say.

"There's no debate that speeds now are higher than they have ever been
in the history of this nation," said Richard Retting, a senior
transportation engineer with the nonprofit Insurance Institute for
Highway Safety. "There seems to be no stopping that trend."

The trend has drawn little public notice, overshadowed by more visible
problems like drunken driving and, lately, the supposed "road rage"

Another factor that may be veiling the national speeding binge is this
apparent paradox: although some analysts and consumer groups insist
that higher speeds cost lives, highway deaths have been falling
steadily for years. Though Americans are driving more miles than ever,
the fatality rate per highway mile has declined 11 percent since 1995,
when the federal government abandoned the national speed limit of 55
miles per hour.

Whatever the reasons for the safer highways -- air bags, seat belt and
drunken-driving laws and better-engineered cars foremost among them --
it is clear that those who drive on them have become emboldened to

The evidence for what Mr. Retting calls "speed creep" -- the gradual
process of going faster and faster on the highways, regardless of the
posted limit, is striking:

Between 1980 and 1992, the percentage of interstate drivers exceeding
65 m.p.h. more than quadrupled, to nearly 23 percent from 4.9 percent,
according to Federal Highway Administration data.

In New York in 1991, only 14 percent of drivers ticketed on Interstate
87, which runs from New York City to the Canadian border, had been
driving over 80 m.p.h., state records show.

By 1996, 27 percent were.

On many stretches of Interstates 80 and 280 in New Jersey, fewer than
10 percent of drivers now obey the 55 m.p.h. limits, state speed
surveys show.

And last year, state surveys of speeds along Interstates 95 and 84,
two of Connecticut's densest traffic arteries, showed that so-called
85th percentile speed -- the speed a car should maintain to flow
smoothly with all the other cars -- reached as high as 74 m.p.h.

Rising speeds are getting the attention of federal officials. On
Jan. 9, the Department of Transportation is scheduled to host an
all-day workshop in Washington to figure out ways to "restore the
credibility of speed limits."

More and more states, especially those in the West, where highways
often stretch for uninterrupted miles, admit the growing uselessness
of their own speed limits.

In Utah, a state that lets rural interstate drivers go 75 m.p.h.,
people now often drive 10 to 20 miles an hour faster than they did
just a decade ago, said Craig Allred, the director of the Utah Highway
Safety Office.

Utah troopers commonly allow drivers an 8-to-10 m.p.h. buffer zone
above some limits.

"The emphasis now is on hazardous drivers," he said.

By raising the speed limit, and hence reducing travel times along a
mind-numbing stretch of Interstate 80 in southwest Utah, Mr. Allred
added, officials cut the fatality rates by keeping more drivers from
falling asleep.

In some states, like Maryland, officials are combating faster driving
with electronic tools, like radar posts and variable signs that show
motorists how fast they are driving, said Manu Shah, a manager of
traffic safety analysis with the Maryland Department of

Everyone has an excuse for why they speed. Toll-road drivers, like
those on the New Jersey Turnpike, often feel entitled to speed, Mr.
Shah said. "They think they are paying for the privilege of driving a
little faster," he said.

Other drivers, especially those steering burly sport utility vehicles
with mammoth engines, seem ill- equipped to handle all that power,
said Sgt. Paul Vance of the Connecticut State Police. These days, his
troopers see more drivers than ever fly by them at 80 and 90 m.p.h.,
he said. Once caught, more of those drivers now simply blame their
vehicles. "They'll say, 'The car just got away from me,' " he said.

Federal statistics show the Northeast, home to some of the most
crowded interstates in the nation, is also home to the fastest drivers
in the country, including the likes of Mr. Hennessy, the computer

Even in dowdy Connecticut -- the so-called Land of Steady Habits --
drivers nowadays "don't pay particular attention to speed limits,"
said Bob Ouellette, manager of the driving school in AAA's Hartford

On the two-lane Merritt Parkway, for instance, where rush-hour traffic
often flows toward New York at or near 75 m.p.h., "you're putting your
own life in danger by driving 55," the posted speed limit, Mr.
Ouellette said.

That is why some people want speed limits to go even higher, for
safety. If speed limits went up, they reason, fewer drivers would

"The heart of the problem," said James J. Baxter, the president of the
National Motorists Association, a national lobbying group that is
pushing for higher speed limits, "is that the legal speeds are not
appropriate for what people consider to be acceptable.

"If you have a 75 m.p.h. limit on the New Jersey Turnpike, you're
going to have 90 to 95 percent compliance," he suggested.

"Then you could focus on the 5 percent that are rolling down the road
at 120."

But would it really be just 5 percent? "I used to live out west, so I
am very comfortable with 75 and 80 miles an hour, even 85," Suzi
Yebio, 23, of New York City, said during a speeding break Thursday
along the turnpike, her main conduit to friends in Washington. "If
they raised the limit, I'd probably do 10 miles more than that."

Then there is idea of driving as video game, a phenomenon Leon James,
a professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii, believes now
rules many drivers' approach to the road.

"It's almost impossible for most drivers to stay within speed limits,"
he said. "The traffic emotions are very intense and competitive."

Many experts say they believe speed is a factor behind a boom in
dangerous and menacing driving tactics.

The latter problem became so bad in New Jersey, in fact, that in 1997
the state police established a special telephone number to report
dangerous and aggressive drivers. It has already fielded more than
30,000 complaints, said Sgt. Al Della Fave.

Like many traffic experts, Mr. James believes the burgeoning "road
rage" phenomenon will grow larger as the nation's roads grow ever more
clogged, compelling more people like Amy Emke to speed even when she
does not want to.

"It's the pressure of the people behind you," Ms. Emke of Wingdale,
N.Y., said Thursday during a rest break along the New Jersey Turnpike.
"They push you faster."