Thoughts From The Southern Route

Yesterday, when I approached the I-71/I-76 intersection, my inner Clint Eastwood Dirty Harry voice asked if I felt lucky, and I did–so I took the southern route. And sure enough, as I rolled along I-76 in Ohio, I-80 in Pennsylvania, and I-84 in Pennsylvania, New York, and Connecticut, my luck held up. The weather was perfect for driving–dry and sunny–and I made excellent time. It all changed, unfortunately, when I passed Hartford and entered Massachusetts.

Once I-84 emptied into I-90, and I turned onto I-495 to loop around Boston, the traffic got heavy and moved into the frustrating stop-and-go mode, giving rise to the two eternal questions for drivers. The first is: if there are no accidents and there is no road work, why does stop-and-go traffic, where you actually have to come to a dead halt on an interstate highway, happen at all? Why doesn’t traffic continue to move forward at a steady, if slower, pace? Is it that somebody changed lanes and cut someone off, producing a domino effect of braking that ultimately produced standstills farther back in the line of cars?

I guess that is more than just one question.

And the second question is: why does the lane I pick in stop-and-go traffic always seem to be the slowest lane? I tend to favor the passing lane, reasoning that it will have fewer cars moving back and forth, and no one entering from access ramps, but yesterday the left lane was the worst for stoppages by far. The middle lane was better, and the far right lane seemed to have the smoothest traffic flow, notwithstanding the people coming onto the highway. Is that always true, and if so, why? And why would the left lane ever be anything other than the lane that had the smoothest traffic flow?

Finally, there is the E-ZPass issue. Do you get one, or not? Toll roads, and the use of E-ZPass rather than depositing money to a toll booth attendant, is clearly a northeastern phenomenon, as the above map demonstrates. If you’re driving east, E-ZPass definitely makes things easier, as you can roll past interstate toll booths without stopping, knowing that someone somewhere is logging your movements and charging you electronically, and you don’t have to fume about the person in front of you who moves up to the toll booth without having their payment handy, causing even more delay. I’ve not gotten E-ZPass because I just don’t feel like I would use it much, and there’s something about it that just irks me from a privacy standpoint. But on yesterday’s drive it became clear that we’re being tracked, whether we use E-ZPass or not, because on many of the toll roads there are no booths and the signs announce that if you don’t have an E-ZPass you’ll just be billed–which means your car is being photographed and the license plate information is being used to send you a bill. E-ZPass doesn’t seem any more intrusive than that.

Jack Kerouac wouldn’t be able to drive anonymously on the tollways of the northeast U.S. in the same way he traveled incognito in On The Road. In the western half of the country, where there aren’t nearly as many toll roads, it might still be possible. I do find myself wondering, though, about a question that I don’t think was addressed in On The Road: when Jack Kerouac encountered stop-and-go traffic, which lane did he choose?

The Northern Route Or The Southern Route

Today I’m getting up early and driving back to Maine. That means I’ll be making a crucial choice: the northern route, or the southern route?

It’s the kind of tough, coin-flip decision of which road trips are made. The “southern” route takes me on I-76, on I-80 though northern Pennsylvania, then up I-84, past Scranton, to slice across southern New York and then head north through Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. The northern route, on the other hand, takes I-71 to I-271 and then up to I-90 and follows it through northern Ohio, the stub of Pennsylvania where Erie is located, then past Buffalo and across the entire width of New York and pretty much the entire width of Massachusetts, too.

Which way to go? Do you take the risk of hitting a lot of traffic as you pass the Cleveland suburbs, Buffalo, Rochester, and Albany on the I-90 route, or is the bigger risk the crummy road conditions and inevitably crappy traffic in the Scranton-Wilkes Barre corridor or as you roll through Hartford, Connecticut? Do you take the I-90 turnpike toll road, dealing with the issues that arise when, like all Midwesterners, you don’t have one of those “EZ Pass” units that allow you to zip through the toll stations, or do you enjoy the pleasures of the freeway? Which route is more likely to have a disabling accident, or active roadwork that will back up the traffic for miles?

I’ve driven both routes, and it’s basically six of one, half a dozen of the other. They are so close in terms of distance and likely travel time that even the most careful analysis could be upset by simple bad luck. I won’t be deciding for sure until I hit the spot on I-71 for the I-76 turnoff and go with a gut check. At that point, I’ll ask myself, in my best Dirty Harry voice: “Well, punk? Do you feel lucky?”

Road Radio

It’s been a while since I’ve listened to the radio for an extended period. This weekend’s air travel mishap, and the resulting need to drive from Bangor, Maine to Columbus, Ohio, changed all that. I got a substantial diet of radio offerings as I rolled through Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, and finally into Ohio.

Some things about radio have changed, dramatically, and some have stayed the same. If you’re looking for NPR or classical music, for example, you’re going to want to look around the low end of the FM dial, just as you always have. (Good luck finding classical music, though; I tried, again and again, and regrettably there doesn’t seem to be much of it on the airwaves these days.) Sermons and church music tend to be clustered there, too. If you’re looking for sports or aggressive political talk, on the other hand, you’ll want to switch over to AM. (I stuck to FM until I got to Ohio, when I decided to risk brief exposure to political screeds in search of some coverage of the Buckeyes, Browns, and Guardians.)

Popular radio–that is, everything you’d find above 92 on the FM dial–seems to have gone through a consolidation phase, in two ways. First, in different states you’ll find that five or six formerly independent radio stations based in different cities and towns have jointed together and become one station playing the same content that you can listen to at various channel settings as you drive along. These consolidated stations tend to have generic names like “The River.”

And that phenomenon has produced the second form of consolidation: there’s a lot less content variety on the radio than there used to be. Classical music and jazz aren’t the only victims. A local station in the past might play “Polka Varieties” featuring Frankie Yankovic, or crop reports. You’re not going to get that any longer. Flipping through the radio dial on my journey produced a lot of soulless modern country stations and mushed together “classic rock” options that might play songs from the ’60s to the ’90s. And the “classic rock” stations seem to have the same playlists, too. I heard Queen’s Another One Bites The Dust no less than four times during my drive. and got heavy doses of Bon Jovi, Cheap Trick, and Heart, too. Surprisingly, to me at least, I didn’t hear a single Beatles tune until I got to Ohio and tuned in a Youngstown station that was playing Let It Be.

And here’s another thing: there don’t seem to be actual, live DJs anymore–at least, not on Friday night and Saturday. I didn’t hear what seemed to be a live voice on any station until I turned to a sports station in Ohio. Most of the stations seemed to be going with totally recorded playlists. If you’re aspiring to be a radio DJ these days, good luck.

I’ll be driving back to Maine next weekend, as part of the continuing fallout from modern air travel hassles. Already I’m bracing myself for more airings of Living On A Prayer and I Want You To Want Me. It’s not the greatest music in the world, but it beats the political craziness. And that’s about the best you can say about the state of road radio these days.

Irrational “Rebooking“

Traveling by air seems to get worse by the day. Yesterday I experienced a new variation in irrationality that made the travel experience worse than ever.

I was flying from Bangor. Maine to Columbus through D.C. After checking the monitor in Bangor and seeing everything was a “go,” I got a text message that the D.C. to Columbus flight had been abruptly cancelled for some unstated reason. When I was digesting that unhappy bit of news, I got the message that the airline had “rebooked” me on a flight leaving this afternoon, meaning I’d have to find a hotel room near Reagan National and spend the night. I’ve had that happen before. What made this “rebooking” even more ridiculous was that it had me flying today from D.C. to Asheville, North Carolina—away from Columbus, if you consult your map—then flying from Asheville to Charlotte, and then finally from Charlotte to Columbus. A three-legged trip, with all of the attendant risk of delays and more cancellations, that would get me in a day later than planned, with a hotel hassle to boot? That’s a “rebooking “ only in the most absurd sense of the word.

There were no rental cars available in D.C. for a one-way ride to Columbus, either. Fortunately, I drove to the Bangor airport, so the obvious answer was to drive back to Columbus. That’s why I’m writing this from a Homewood Suites room in bucolic Southington, Connecticut.

Sure, gas is expensive, and driving takes time. But given the airline shenanigans I’ve experienced lately, my circle of preferred driving range keeps getting wider.

COVID Casualties Of The Travel Variety

COVID-19 continues to be the gift that keeps on giving, affecting not only health but also creating many other unexpected changes–in how, and where, and even whether we work, how we shop, how kids are educated, how we travel, and countless other aspects of American life. COVID has caused some business to close and others to reap record profits, and now it’s making life difficult for regional airports.

Those of us who don’t use regional airports probably haven’t noticed, but the airlines are retrenching and pulling routes back from the smaller markets, and are citing COVID as the reason. In November, United Airlines announced that it was pulling out of 11 cities, and this week Delta announced that it was cutting seven routes, including suspending service to three airports entirely. Lincoln, Nebraska, Grand Junction, Colorado, and Cody, Wyoming are the three cities that are being dropped from the Delta flight list. A Delta spokesperson said: “”Due to ongoing travel demand impact from the pandemic, we have made the difficult decision to suspend Delta Connection service to these markets.”

That’s hard news to take for the travelers who use the regional airports that are affected, because the law of supply and demand teaches that with every drop in supply–in this case, of flights–the prices of the remaining options are going to increase. That means if you’ve got to fly to Lincoln or Grand Junction in the future, brace yourselves for sticker shock, at least until some small regional airline decides to start service in those locations. And if you live in an area serviced by other regional airports, keep your fingers crossed that your travel demand statistics are robust enough to keep the airlines servicing your airport, thereby producing competitive prices and justifying the money that your tax dollars spent to build the airport in the first place.

The “ongoing travel demand impact from the pandemic” that the Delta spokesperson mentioned is worth thinking about, too. Are people not traveling because they are concerned about their health, or because they have seen so many things get cancelled as new variants crop up and sweep across the globe, or because people feel that the masking and testing requirements that apply to air travel are so unpleasant that they’d rather stay home? And in the case of the smaller markets, how many travelers have decided that they would rather just drive to their destination and avoid the cancellation risk and the masks? It makes you wonder whether the impulse to just drive rather than fly, like the impulse to work from home, will be a permanent byproduct of the COVID years.

Keeping To Tree Speed

Yesterday we drove over to Crockett Cove for a tulip show. It’s one of the more remote, less populated parts of the island, covered with what looks like a primeval forest. To get to our destination we followed a narrow gravel road — just wide enough for our car, without much wiggle room to either side — that wound through the trees for miles. At one point we passed this sign, which gave us a chuckle. I found myself wondering if the red car displayed at the bottom of the tree trunk, where bark had been knocked or scraped off, was a testimonial to an actual fender bender in the past.

Who needs a posted speed limit when trees are going to be effective enforcers of careful driving?

Driving Reflexes

Last night Kish and I went out for dinner for Valentine’s Day. Our restaurant destination was within walking distance, but given that many of the sidewalks along the way are still snow- and ice-covered, and the fact that it would be dark by the time we walked home, we decided driving was the safer approach.

As I got into the car, I realized with a start that it was the first time I’ve been behind the wheel of the car for . . . well, I don’t know exactly how long. Weeks, for sure, and maybe a full month. There has been no period in my adult life where I have gone for such a long period without driving. And the reason is: there’s just been no reason to drive anywhere. Kish has been out, but I’ve limited my movement to walking around our neighborhood, walking to work on a few occasions, walking to get a haircut, and walking to restaurants. It actually felt weird to slide into the driver’s seat.

We use the car so infrequently, and for such short trips, that we couldn’t even remember the last time we filled the tank. When was the last time you ever wondered about that? Gas prices are going up, apparently, but we certainly aren’t contributing any pressure to the demand side of the pricing equation.

Although it felt strange to drive, the deeply ingrained driving reflexes and motor memory came back with a rush. Driving again was like riding the proverbial bicycle. Still, the experience did make me think that I should take the car out every once in a while, just to keep the reflexes sharp. Put me down for a Drivers’ Ed refresher course.

Masked Driving

We took a long drive this week.  It was our first extended road trip in a while, but it also was interesting in other ways as well.  In fact, I would say it was one of the more memorable drives I’ve ever taken.

b3effd_ltptolls020411It’s as if the country is reawakening from a long sleep.  Some people are up and wide awake, some are groggy from the long slumber, and some are still snoring.  As a result, the roads weren’t nearly as busy as you would normally expect on the Thursday before the Memorial Day weekend.  In the early morning hours in Ohio, we saw lots of trucks on the road — a good sign, incidentally, for a resurgence in the nation’s economy — but virtually no cars.  By mid-morning, as we rolled through northern Pennsylvania on I-80, the trucks still dominated the road and cars remained few and far between.  The traffic picked up as we skirted New York City and Boston, but we didn’t hit any stoppages, even with lots of road construction.  As a result, we made excellent time.

The lack of traffic is one reason why the Cannonball Run record — the wholly illegal effort to make the fastest drive from the Red Ball garage in New York City to the Portofini Inn in Redondo Beach, California — has been broken repeatedly during this national shutdown period.  The new record now stands at less than 26 hours, which is mind-boggling and makes you wonder about the top speed reached as the cars zipped through the wide-open western states.

But the lack of traffic wasn’t the only reminder of the coronavirus.  As has now become the norm, for me at least, once you are out of your personal space you become acutely conscious of every common surface you touch.  Refueling means touching buttons on the gas pump and holding the nozzle.  You don your mask as you enter gas stations — some stations have signs saying that masks are mandatory — and think about the safest way to open the bathroom door, flip up the toilet seat, and flush the commode if you need to use the facilities.  (Your prim and proper grandmother was never more worried about the cleanliness of rest stops than you are right now.)  At one stop, as I stood masked and trying to do my 20 seconds of vigorous, soapy hand-washing, a trucker stood next to me and brushed his teeth, which was a bit unnerving.

You put your mask on, again, as you pay at toll booths, which is probably the best argument ever for getting EZ Pass and just rolling on through.  Every toll booth worker was wearing masks and gloves, and at the I-84 toll booth in New York City the attendant applied some kind of disinfectant to the dollar that I handed her.  It makes me wonder if COVID-19 will drive another nail in the coffin of cash and spur faster adoption of contactless payment card technology.  For that matter, it makes me wonder if toll booths where you can actually use the nation’s currency also aren’t going to be around for long.

In all, a very memorable trip.  The coronavirus continues to affect just about everything.

All-Day Drive

It was a day when the sun rose in the rear view mirror and set in the front windshield, framed by the trees lining Interstate Route 80 in western Pennsylvania. A day when your butt gets sore from sitting in a car seat for hours as you roll down highway after highway. A day when you’re reminded just how gross and crowded highway rest stops can be. When you move from sports talk shows dealing with Boston teams to talk radio about New York teams to chatter about Pittsburgh teams and finally careful takes on Cleveland teams. When you start in an oceanfront town and end up in the heart of the Midwest. When you realize there’s a classical music desert from Boston to Pittsburgh but you’re never out of earshot of Christian music or conservative talk radio. When you get a sense of just how big the country really is.

One very long day, and 1,000 miles covered. And now it’s finally over.

Right Turns On Red

I’ve written before about the perils of pedestrianism in modern urban America.  Walkers really have to mind their Ps and Qs whenever they approach an intersection.  Cars rocketing through red lights, or trying to squeeze past pedestrians who are already in the crosswalk, or gliding into the crosswalk to make a rolling right turn on red, clearly aren’t thinking about us — at all — so we really need to look out for them.

no-turn-on-redjpg-8e01337c7948434eSo when I saw this article in the Washington Post about the District of Columbia’s evaluation of whether to end right turns on red, I read it with interest.  It’s been a really bad year for traffic accidents in our Nation’s Capital, with deadly crashes involving 12 pedestrians, three cyclists, and a person riding a scooter.  That’s a pretty shocking death toll, and it’s caused D.C. to reevaluate its policies — including allowing right turns on red at intersections — as part of an effort to cut down on car[people collisions.

Two points about the article were of interest to me.  The first is that right turns on red was primarily the result of a federal policy adopted in the ’70s, during the “energy crisis” days.  Right turns on red were viewed as a way to reduce oil and gas consumption, and federal policy was directed toward strongly incentivizing cities to allow that driving maneuver as an energy conservation measure.  And the second is that the impact — an uncomfortable word under these circumstances — of allowing right turns on red on the number of traffic accidents really doesn’t seem to be significant, as a statistical matter.  One early study, undertaken shortly after “right turn on red” was adopted as a policy, showed a big increase in crashes, but more recent studies, performed after drivers became used to the rules, indicate that the effect of right turn on red is negligible.

My personal pedestrian experience tells me that right turn on red is a perfectly safe maneuver — if drivers are paying attention and following the rules.  The problem is that some drivers don’t do that.  They roll directly into crosswalks and intersections, looking only to their left at oncoming traffic, without considering that there might be pedestrians entering the intersection — just as there are some drivers who routinely run through red lights.  I’m convinced that it’s not the policy, it’s the drivers who are a problem.

And for that reason I really question whether eliminating right turns on red would make a difference.  I routinely cross an intersection where right turns on red are not allowed.  That makes no difference to some of the drivers — they take a right turn on red anyway.  Unless our police are rededicated to enforcing basic traffic rules, which doesn’t seem to be a high priority for law enforcement right now, there’s not going to be a significant improvement in traffic safety, whether the policy changes or not.

Right turn on red or not, pedestrians just need to be wary.  It’s a hazardous world for walkers.

A Bridge Too Far

Over in the Far East, they’ve just opened the world’s longest sea-crossing bridge.  Connecting Hong Kong, Macau, and the Chinese city of Zhuhai, the bridge cost $20 billion and is 34 miles long.  It took nine years to build, involved the creation of artificial islands, dips into a tunnel under a busy harbor area, and is supposed to be designed to withstand earthquakes, typhoons, and collisions with oversized tankers.

551478a8-d1f0-11e8-81a4-d952f5356e85_1320x770_022145It’s an impressive engineering feat, no doubt — but when I read about the bridge I mostly felt relief that I wouldn’t have to drive across it.

I’m not a big fan of driving on those lengthy bridges that span bays or harbor or rivers.  The towering height over the water, the slightly claustrophobic feeling of being penned in as you cross, and the concern that you are putting yourself totally in the hands of approaching drivers who might be hedging toward the middle — or, even worse, trying to take a photo with their phone — combine to make a long bridge crossing an uncomfortable experience for me.  I grip the steering wheel a little tighter as I cross.

I’m not alone in this.  Years ago, when Kish and I once traversed the colossal Chesapeake Bay bridge, we learned that some people simply could not bring themselves to drive across it — so many people, in fact, that there were drivers stationed at each end to help people make the trip.  Perhaps that’s at least part of the reason why most drivers won’t even have the opportunity to drive on the Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai span in their own cars; they’re required to park in Hong Kong and take a shuttle bus or a special hire car to cross the bridge.

If I ever have to cross this new, world’s longest sea-spanning bridge, I’d be happy to have somebody else do the driving.  A 34-mile-long bridge might be a bridge too far for me.

Red-Light Runners

I’m convinced the quality of driving, and drivers, in America is going steadily downhill, and our roads are becoming more dangerous.  The best evidence of that reality is found at any intersection in any American city with a traffic light.

factsheet-rlr-240x255If you take a moment to watch the traffic light at an intersection go through its signal progression and observe the actions of drivers in response — as I do every day on my walks to and from the office — you’ll immediately notice three things.  First, almost nobody stops when the light turns yellow.  Instead, the amber caution light now is viewed as an invitation to speed up, so that three or four or five more speeding cars can go careening through the intersection.  Second, at least one car, and sometimes two, will rip through the intersection on the red light, apparently banking on the hope that the cars on the crossing street, and any pedestrians trying to cross the street, won’t have moved into the intersection by then.  And third, cars turning right at the intersection don’t actually stop at the red light.  Instead, they’ll roll right into the crosswalk and move immediately into their turns, not stopping unless there’s a car approaching from the left.  It’s not the traffic signal, but instead the oncoming traffic, that affects their behavior.

This is a significant change from when I started driving, and you were trained to stop when the yellow light appeared.  If you took somebody fresh from a ’70s-era drivers’ education course and put them on a modern city street, they’d probably get rear-ended and cause a multi-car pileup because the drivers behind would be expecting them to speed up on yellow, just like everybody else seems to do.  And, of course, running a red light was a sure way to get a ticket in those days.   But now no police officers seem to be writing tickets for red-light runners, and efforts by cities to enforce the red-light rules through intersection camera set-ups has been mired in corruption claims and technological issues.  So people feel free to run the red lights, and probably will continue to do so until they get into an accident, hit a pedestrian or a cyclist, or get a ticket.

I wish city police departments would devote more resources to in-city enforcement of traffic laws so that as many officers are looking for urban red-light runners as are looking for speeders on the nation’s highways.  And who knows?  Maybe when the technological glitches get ironed out, self-driving cars will actually make the streets safer.  But right now, it’s dangerous out there, and it seems to be getting worse.

Test Of Patience

In the modern world, patience is most certainly not a virtue.  We expect everything immediately, and feel incredibly put upon in the absence of instantaneousness.  Whether it is service at a store, fast food at the drive-thru window, or a split-second response when we type in a search, we demand an instant response.  And don’t even mention the possibility of the spinning circle of delay on our computer screens!

But sometimes, extreme speed is just not an option.  Consider, for example, driving on a winding two-lane country road behind a rusting panel truck.  Your GPS told you that it would take 90 minutes to get somewhere, and with supreme self-confidence you determined that you could do a little bit better than that.  But you didn’t figure on being behind a truck driver who apparently is being paid by the hour, because he sure is taking his own sweet time about getting to wherever it is he’s going.  Doesn’t he realize that your time is hugely valuable?  Doesn’t he approach his job with the same sense of urgency and need for speed that you apply to everything you do?  Doesn’t he understand that you’ve got to get somewhere, and so does everybody else who is now stacked up behind his sorry, slow-moving, rusting ass?

So you fret, and rage, but there’s not much you can do about it, is there?  Sure, you could take a chance, blindly pass him against that solid yellow line, and hope that no car or truck is approaching on the other side at that same moment in time, but you’re not that hot-headed and reckless, and anyway there’s a pretty steady flow of traffic on that other side.  There are no passing lanes on this road, and you’re not getting the intermittent yellow line when there seems to be a lull in traffic, either.  So . . . there’s really nothing to do but accept the fact that you’re going to be moving at a ponderous pace for the foreseeable future.

You think that maybe there’s something on the radio,so you fiddle with the channel changer and find a song that you like and haven’t heard in a while.  Because you’re passing the scenery at a veritable snail’s pace you can take a good look at the houses and trees, and some of them are really very pretty. now that you mention it.  And there’s something simple and kind of enjoyable about driving at something other than breakneck speed, and just letting the car drip into the swales of the roadway and feeling it gripped by gravity as it banks into a gentle turn on the black asphalt.  It’s really not that bad.  And soon enough, the truck driver is turning off the road, and you realize you’re still right on time, and losing a few seconds or even a few minutes because of that slow-moving truck really wasn’t a big deal at all.

It’s not a bad lesson to learn anew, every once in a while.

 

Driving Forward In The Kingdom

It’s June of 2018.  And as of Sunday, June 24, women in Saudi Arabia are finally legally able to drive.

p06byymkIt’s astonishing when you think about it, but until yesterday the kingdom of Saudi Arabia had maintained a ban on women driving — the only one in the world.  It was one of the most visible elements of differential treatment of men and women in that country.  The decision to finally allow women to drive is part of an effort by the Saudis to liberalize and modernize their benighted internal policies, which have received a lot of international criticism over the years.  And, as is so frequently the case, the move also has an economic component.  The Saudi economy has taken a hit because of oil prices, and allowing women to drive is expected to increase the employment of women and allow them to make more of a contribution to the gross national product.

Not surprisingly, many Saudi women took to the streets in cars to celebrate their ability to do something that women the world over have taken for granted for more than a century.  “I feel free like a bird,” one woman said.  “The jubilance, confidence and pride expressed by Saudi women driving for the first time in their country, without fear of arrest, brought tears to my eyes,” another one wrote.  And Saudi women posted videos of themselves driving on social media.

But let’s not get too excited about the loosening of repressive policies in Saudi Arabia, because a number of activists who strongly advocated for great women’s rights have been jailed and remain behind bars, even as the ban against women driving has been lifted.  Some believe that the jailing is intended to placate the ultra-conservative religious leaders who remain a significant force in the country, and also to send the message that only Saudi leaders — and not activists advocating for changes in Saudi policies — can produce reforms in the kingdom.

It’s a sign that, while lifting the ban on women driving is welcome, Saudi Arabia has a long way to go.  And it’s also a reminder that, in 2018, there are still a lot of repressive policies out there against women that still need to be addressed.

Setting The Right Speed Limit

The other day I was driving on a highway, tooling along on a clear and bright spring day during a non-rush hour period, when I came upon a little traffic snarl.  Road construction?  Rubber-necking past an accident site?  Nope.  It was somebody driving too slow in the passing lane, causing other cars in that lane to pile up behind him as he inched past the car in the slow lane.  Then people started to duck around the line of cars to see if they could pass by on the right.  Suddenly you had another illustration of my long-held view that the real problem on the highways is not your average speeders — that is, the people who routinely drive above the speed limit, as opposed to the drag racers or road ragers — but rather drivers who are driving too slow in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Traffic engineering studies that substantiate this belief.   When traffic engineers review the speed limits on road, they invariably try to set the limit using the “85th percentile” method: that is, finding the number at which 85% of drivers drive at or below the posted speed limit and only 15% exceed it.  Why?  Because while most people drive at what they think is an appropriate speed given the prevailing conditions — a speed that often doesn’t conform to the posted limits — there is a core of people who actually faithfully obey the speed limits.  If the posted speed limits are set too low for the “I’ll drive at an appropriate speed” crowd, you’ve created a situation where there is a significant speed variance between that group and the speed driven by the faithful obeyers.

And that is the point of maximum roadway danger, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, which has concluded that “the potential for being involved in an accident is highest when traveling at speed much lower or much higher than the majority of motorists.”   As the article linked above notes, the 85th percentile approach is the traffic engineers’ method of threading the needle between the approaches of the appropriate speeders and the faithful obeyers:  “Traffic engineers believe that the 85th percentile speed is the ideal speed limit because it leads to the least variability between driving speeds and therefore safer roads. When the speed limit is correctly set at the 85th percentile speed, the minority of drivers that do conscientiously follow speed limits are no longer driving much slower than the speed of traffic.”

But here’s the rub:  setting speed limits to actually match the 85th percentile test would mean raising the speed limits on most American roads, because right now about 50 percent of drivers routinely exceed posted speed limits.  In short, the appropriate speeders are telling the traffic engineers that the posted limits are too low, so to get to the 85 percent figures engineers would need to increase the speed limits.  That move would be applauded by the majority of drivers, but lower speed limits are reflexively supported by safety advocates — and by towns that pad their budgets by issuing speeding tickets on the stretch of roadway that passes through the township limits.  Everybody who lives nearby knows where those speed traps are. but the out-of-towners get tagged with expensive tickets, pay them by mail, and help the town to hit its revenue projections.

Traffic issues are one of the great imponderables in modern society, where the experts say all of their data and experience points in one direction — raising speed limits — but political considerations work in the opposite direction and keep the limits below what most drivers would prefer.  On most roadways, that magic 85th percentile number remains a pipe dream that probably won’t be realized until the human factor is eliminated and we’re all being moved around by self-driving cars.