KENT WARD

Our comfort zone on the interstate

Posted June 03, 2011, at 10:01 p.m.

As the week wound down and legislative adjournment neared, the Maine House and Senate approved legislation that would remove the scofflaw label from the majority of motorists who travel I-95 between Old Town and that long lonesome highway’s northern terminus at Houlton.

The legislation sponsored by Rep. Alexander Willette, R-Mapleton, would authorize the Maine Department of Transportation to increase the speed limit on the relatively thinly traveled 90-mile stretch of highway, from 65 mph to 75 mph. Because the bill has a price tag attached, it was sent to the legislative Appropriations Committee for consideration before it can

be enacted.

According to Willette, the DOT believes the proposal is an idea whose time has come. A 1999 study found that most drivers traveled up to 75 mph on that part of the highway. So what the heck. The DOT is “basically making it legal for all those folks who are already speeding,” Willette told Land Line magazine.

For years now, it has been our not so well-kept little secret that only a dope drives the posted interstate speed limit of 65 mph. It is an unwritten rule of sorts that a traveler can nudge the speedometer needle to something slightly north of 70mph, and unless Old Blue lurking up ahead with his official state trooper radar gun at the ready is having a bad-hair day, the speeder probably won’t get ticketed.

A Yankee magazine cartoon in my collection shows husband and wife in their front yard beside an automobile that is pretty well stove up, its rear end scrunched into the back seat, windows smashed and tires deflated. The guy is explaining to his wife that, as an experiment, he had tried driving on Route 95 at the posted speed limit.

In the days when I had occasion to commute to Augusta on a regular basis, I tried a similar experiment. I made a bet with a co-worker that I could travel the 65 miles from the Carmel-Winterport exit of the interstate to Augusta — my car set on cruise control at the 65 mph speed limit —  without passing a soul, but being passed by everything moving.

I was wrong. But not by much. Seventy-two vehicles passed me. I passed three, two of which were heavily laden tractor-trailer units, easy pickings as they labored up a steep grade in the Etna area. The third turned out to be Ma and Pa Kettle on a leisurely outing in an old junker that had likely never seen 65 mph on its best day.

The two big rigs I had passed earlier soon caught up to me and blew my doors off in retaliation as they swept by on their runs down the line. Since the truckers and I were thus tied at 1-1 in the passing game, I declared it a wash, deleting them from my survey. This meant that 72 of 73 vehicles I encountered on the trip, or 98.6 percent, were breaking the law on that particular day.

On the return trip I joined the scofflaw element, locking in a speed of 70 mph on my automatic pilot gizmo, and the numbers changed accordingly: 37 motorists in a wicked hurry passed me; I passed 12 who were doing the speed limit or slightly over.

It has been suggested that if you give motorists 75 mph, many will push the envelope to 85 mph, human nature being what it is when it comes to government’s imposition of limits. It seems a given that Massachusetts and Quebec drivers — the two most aggressive species of drivers in this hemisphere — would continue to exceed any posted speed limit no matter how high the bar. They simply can’t help themselves. They were born with a heavy foot on the accelerator.

But as one who has done his fair share of making the Houlton-Old Town run over the years, I’ve found that 70-75 mph is within the comfort zone of most normal drivers. I’d guess that a new DOT survey conducted after a 75 mph speed limit had been on the books for an appropriate period would show that not a whole lot of motorists had upped the ante to big-boy numbers of 80 mph-plus.

Mainers may desire to make good time in getting from Point A to Point B in this rural state when the highway can safely indulge them. But I doubt that many would want to turn the deal into a kamikaze mission just to save a few minutes.

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. His email address is maineolddawg@gmail.com.

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