I can’t drive 55

February 25, 2008 at 8:58 pm | Posted in Rants | 3 Comments

No, this isn’t a post about 80’s musicians with really bad hair. Today I read an interesting article on speed limits titled “States where you can drive fast”. Of course, I had to read the article once I saw the title. I don’t think I am a particularly fast driver, and I’ve never had an accident that involved a high rate of speed (unless you count when I hit a deer while going 50 mph on a rural road). One section of the story caught my eye. It said that,

“Advocates of low speed limits won’t find much to like about Texas. True to its frontier roots, it stands out as the land of the fast getaway. The top rural speed limit is normally 70 mph, but in 2006 it set a maximum daytime speed of 80 miles per hour, the highest speed limit on the country, on more than 500 miles of rural interstate in its southwest corner.”

I’ve never driven in the part of Texas they are referencing (I-10 near El Paso mostly), but maybe there is a cultural connection. I am a native Texan and learned to drive mostly on interstates and highways. I remember driving with my Dad in the right hand lane with the cruise control set at 77 mph (the limit at the time was 65 mph). I was passed by a LOT of the other cars. I wasn’t the slowest car on the road, but I definitely belonged in the right hand lane at that speed.

The article also discusses differences in maximum speeds among the states saying that,

“From a highway safety standpoint, the patchwork of speed limits at least seems to make sense. Speeds are slower in more populous Eastern states and faster in the wide-open West. . .”

This entry at Wikipedia has a color-coded map of the United States which seems to support this statement. However, the article also states that:

In part, Yowell looks to differences in political cultures to explain the great continental divide in speed limits. “It may be that certain states have a different approach to questions involving personal liberty versus collective safety,” he said.

As someone who has lived in Texas, the South/Southeast and now the Northeast, I can definitely understand conceptualizing the differences in speed limits as a result of cultural norms related to personal liberty. There does seem to be much more of a “the government must enact laws to protect us from ourselves” type mentality in the Northeast. I live in a state where the citizens aren’t even allowed to pump their own gas! Yes, you read that correctly, all stations in this state are full service. Apparently the State of new Jersey doesn’t trust its native sons and daughters to pump their own gas without causing an incident.

The one line that struck me the most out of the entire article was the opening sentence.

Some drivers would say that the United States is a crazy quilt of speed limits, with an emphasis on the “crazy.”

I know that the authors were thinking of the United States as a whole when they wrote this (look at the Wikipedia map, especially central and eastern Texas if you need a visual). However, this sentence could be describing a single road that I drive on. The New Jersey Turnpike. I really do think that the turnpike must play a role in at least one of Dante’s circles of hell, but I am hard pressed to pick just one.

The truly special characteristic of the turnpike is that the speed limits are “flexible”. This image shows a typical set of signs seen on the turnpike. The sign on the left has neon words and phrases that are illuminated when necessary. They say things like accident ahead, congestion, construction, etc. The sign on the right is the speed limit sign. You can’t quite tell in the picture, but the numbers are like the ones used in old-fashioned scoreboards. They can change…and they do change.

Sometimes a certain stretch of the turnpike will have a speed limit of 45, other times the limit could be higher or lower. You just never know. It’s a huge pain in the ***. I don’t know about you, but I already moderate my speed based on road conditions even without an “official” change to the speed limit. I go slower in cases of rain, sleet, snow or ice. The “flexible” speed limit isn’t necessary.

What really bothers me are the days when the speed limit is lowered for no apparent reason. The roads are dry and traffic is light, yet the speed limit is lowered to 35? This bothers me because I don’t check the speed limit signs every day to see if they have changed. I am a creature of habit. Once I know what the speed limit is on a stretch of road, I just don’t expect it to change in the absence of extreme circumstances. I expect more notice than just the number on the sign changing. Something that will grab my attention like a bunch of orange cones and construction signs.

I don’t like “flexible” speed limits.



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  1. Changeable speed limit signs??? That’s insane! Oregon also has the “you are too stupid to pump your own gas law”. Some days I wish they had it in Texas.

    Who is in charge of changing the speed limit? DOT? I’m surprised someone hasn’t cried discrimination when they got a ticket. Maybe that is the next step?

  2. I have been on that stretch of road in Texas, out of El Paso. It is a very lonely stretch of road! Guess that is why they set the speed limit at 80. It was quite a welcome surprise.

  3. I have a feeling they have some central computer that changes the speed limits. The “changing” nature really is annoying.

    Not pumping my own gas is great in the winter, but really annoying on days when the station is busy and it takes the little guy longer to get to my car than it would have taken me to start filling up and get at least halfway through. That’s the other thing. The fill-up people are always guys.

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