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Driving Back to the Future

by on September 09, 2014 6:45 AM

On Saturday morning my family and I were busy setting up our first football tailgate of the season.

After nine months off it always takes a game or two to get back into the routine. Discovering the items you forgot – ketchup, steamer tray holders – and being thankful for great tailgating neighbors who remember what you didn't.

As we completed our preparations, one of our tailgating neighbors, a couple we've known for thirty years, pulled into their spot. After hugs, handshakes and hellos, the husband remarked to me, "Hey, glad to see Pennsylvania joined the 1990's."

Seems that on their trip to the game they had gotten on Interstate 80 at Lamar and were greeted by a 70 mph speed limit sign. A sign that many other states had posted in 1995 when the National Maximum Speed Law was repealed.

I had the same experience and a similar thought only days before while traveling to our son's soccer game in DuBois. Entering Interstate 80 just before Clearfield I immediately saw a 70 mph sign. "Wow," I said, "that's great. Just a few years behind as usual."

If you haven't already heard, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation recently raised speed limits from 65 mph to 70 on an 88-mile stretch of I-80 from Clearfield County (Exit 101) to Clinton County (mile 189). For those of us who have many miles of driving experience in other parts of the country under our seat-belts, this is a nice little increase.

You see, as a young lad I missed out on the original speed limits the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System was built to accommodate. I was not eligible for a driver's license until October 1975, but the 55 mph speed limit had been signed into law by President Nixon on Jan. 2, 1974. (In my adolescent view at the time it was easily his worst decision as President.)

Back then the reasoning given for this slowdown of society was to improve driving efficiency and save gas nationally as a response to the oil crisis of 1973. Although a common misconception that resulted from that legislation and exists to this day – and is occasionally fueled by the media – is that many people believe their car is most fuel-efficient at exactly 55 mph, regardless of the type of vehicle or driving conditions.

While living in Florida in 1987 I was first introduced to a higher speed limit – 65 mph. For someone who put several vehicles over 100,000 miles driving around that state – and one over the 200,000 mile threshold – it made those seemingly endless trips on the Florida Turnpike a little less monotonous. Yeehaw Junction came and went a little more quickly.

Then on a vacation to Montana in 1992 I hit the mother-lode of driving ecstasy. Standing at the car rental counter at the Missoula airport I asked the rental agent what the speed limit was. She simply said, "Whatever you want to drive." She then went on to add that at night I should follow the 65 mph rule, but during the daytime we were free to drive whatever speed we felt was safe and prudent. Now here was a state that listened to its citizens!

Since returning to Pennsylvania I've marveled at the arbitrariness of speed limits around the state – and even locally. I really enjoy chuckling at the Valley Vista section that is labeled a "Limited Access Highway" with a somewhat un-highway-like speed limit of 35 mph.

Now, mind you, this overdue increase of 5 mph here in Pennsylvania is only a "test." PennDOT will be using data from the test to decide if they can safely bump up speeds on other highways around the state. Not that a good portion of drivers aren't already driving 70 mph anyway. Who among us hasn't heard about the 5 mph cushion? Get out on Interstate 80 and set your cruise control for 64 mph and you'll be constantly passed by other vehicles.

For those people who are concerned about this small incremental increase as it relates to safety – studies are mixed on the results. What most seem to agree on – and what my anecdotal hundreds-of-thousands-of-miles of driving lead me to believe – is that variations from the average traveling speed are the biggest cause of accidents, and cars traveling slower than the average speed are more likely to be involved in crashes than those traveling faster. Since many are already traveling 70 mph, it makes sense to set that as the speed limit.

So this Pennsylvanian is thrilled about any effort on the part of our state government to move forward. The second-largest state legislature in the country, the governing body of the second-oldest state (OK, commonwealth) in the country, mired in 200 years of laws, rules and regulations that makes swift legislative action nigh but impossible, is making an improvement in our lives.

I applaud these efforts and welcome this late but welcome upgrade of our driving privileges. Driving back to the future as it were.

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John Hook is the president of The Hook Group, a local management consulting firm, and active in several nonprofit organizations. Previously John spent 25 years in executive, management and marketing positions with regional and national firms. John lives in Ferguson Township with his wife Jackie and their two children.
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