Car Guy

70 Is All You Get to Go

The unofficial Motorists Tax will see to that.

By 6.2.10

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Several states are raising their highway speed limits to the almost-fair.

In my home state of Virginia, for example, rural highway limits will go "up" to 70 mph this July. I put "up" in quotes because the new 70 mph limit, while higher than the previous 65 mph limit, is exactly the same (or slightly less) than the speed limit was way back in the early 1970s -- before Nixon gave us the 55 mph National Maximum Speed Limit law that stayed on the books for 20-plus years, until it was finally repealed in the mid-1990s.

So, we're almost back to where we were a generation ago.

That's the good news.

The bad news is that with these new limits comes much more aggressive enforcement: 70 mph means 70 mph. Not 75 mph. No more cushion of 5-10 mph or so, which used to be the unspoken gentlemen's agreement during the Drive 55 (and later, 65) era.

I know a few cops, including a VA state trooper, and they've told me that the deal is off. If you drive more than a couple of miles-per-hour faster than the new, "higher" limits, you can expect to be on the receiving end of a piece of payin' paper. But it's not out of vengefulness.

It's opportunism, plain and simple.

The upticked limits have been in the pipeline for a while. It takes years to get something like this done. Public resentment of artificially low limits required time to fester to a boiling point sufficient to overcome decades of "speed kills" propaganda and give us an actual bill that might eventually become a law.

Meanwhile, the economy tanked -- and with it, tax revenues. State and local governments are broke or staring down "painful" (to the bureaucrats and tax-feeders) cutbacks. To keep the gravy train running, more "revenue" needs to be raised. But since overt taxes are politically unthinkable right now, more roundabout methods of extracting the necessary lucre are necessary.

Enter the Motorists Tax.

The beauty of it (again, from the bureaucrats' point-of-view) is that it has a moralizing element to it. They will croon about safety. And thus, of the need for "zero tolerance" of "dangerous speeders."

Since most people have completely forgotten that speed limits 40 years ago were higher than they are today, this will likely sell. Driving 70 mph will be portrayed as Autobahn-like, while driving any faster than 70 will be denounced as the equivalent of running down small children with an SUV.

It will not matter that 70-ish mph has been the de facto, routine, average speed of most cars on most highways irrespective of the posted maxes for years, without excessive carnage or mayhem. In fact, accident/fatality rates have been trending downward -- to a great extent because modern cars are vastly more safe to be in if you do crash and inherently less likely to crash in the first place thanks to accident-avoidance technology such as stability control and ABS.

Nor will it matter that the new "higher" limits merely mean that the legal speed limit now roughly comports more closely with the natural flow of traffic.

What will matter is that the revenuers now have a new excuse to pick our pockets.

In the past, the really egregious tickets -- 62 in a 55, say -- were hard to support because they were so obviously unjust. Judges sometimes even tossed such tickets out. Everyone saw through it, knew it was absurd. But the memory of a time when American highways were posted at 70-75 mph and it was routine to travel at 80-plus without too much worry about being hassled by cops is now so dim and largely forgotten that bringing back 70 seems like a radical -- even reckless -- thing.

Such blazing, daredevil speed!

It is presented as the outer threshold of sanity. And thus, any farther is clearly out of bounds.

So, be forewarned -- and adjust your pace to the new reality: 70 means 70 (unless you've been snarky enough to buy a good radar detector).

Otherwise, expect no mercy.

The gentlemen's understanding between cops and motorists is torn asunder.

The cushion is no more.

Drive accordingly.

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About the Author

Eric Peters is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities: The Cars You Love to Hate (Motor Books International) and a new book, Road Hogs.