The Nation's Pulse

Boxed-In Beauties

Our cars a more powerful and better built than ever -- and we can't even go 55 in them in 70 mph zones. How's that for irony?

By 8.3.06

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Americans' love affair with the car may be headed for divorce court, according to a new survey done by the Pew Research Center. It found that the number of people who still enjoy going for a drive has dropped from eight out of ten back in 1990 to just under seven out of ten today. Inescapable traffic and the rudeness and/or general incompetence of their fellow motorists were cited as causative factors.

With more cars than licensed drivers out there -- more than 200 million at last count -- and with residents of some major urban areas like L.A. spending the equivalent of almost an entire week per year stuck in traffic jams, it's no wonder the bloom's begun to fall off the rose.

People are feeling literally boxed in.

Driving, after all, is as much about freedom of movement as it about freedom of expression -- and if you can't move, there's not much freedom. What good is a 500 horsepower sports car like the 185-mph Corvette Z06 when it's impossible to drive it faster than 60-something mph, except every once in a while? (And even then, for brief and furtive spurts at best.)

It's not mentioned in the Pew study or the news coverage of the study, but it's an interesting and cruel irony that cars have never been more powerful, capable, and safe -- even at very high speeds -- than they are right now. Even middle-of-the-road family sedans like the Toyota Camry V-6 and Honda Accord can hit 130-plus on the top end and are quicker 0-60 than many of the V-8 muscle cars of the 1960s. And today's V-8 sporty cars -- models like the Mustang GT, Dodge Charger and its kin -- offer what was once six-figure exotic-car performance levels for around $30k.

Yet as the power/capability of cars has tracked ever higher, these automobiles are increasingly throttled by external realities such as chock-a-block traffic that rein them in more effectively than Joan Claybrook's wildest midnight fantasies or any mere law ever could.

Twenty-some years ago, the 55 mph National Maximum Speed Limit was the law of the land. Yet one could violate it with impunity if one had the hardware -- and an indifference to the authority of Roscoe P. Coltrane and his radar gun. Fast driving was very possible. It was just a matter of putting your foot down.

Today, most state highways have considerably higher lawful maximums -- as much as 75 or even 80 mph in some places -- but it's getting harder and harder to actually drive that fast. The D.C. Beltway, for example, slows to a crippled crawl for several hours every day. Ditto the I-95/395 corridor that runs from Richmond to Alexandria, Virginia. Similar stories -- and worse -- can be told by the unlucky denizens of Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York and Boston.

Drivers of crusty old Subarus jockey for position with brand-new BMWs, neither of them able to do much more than 45 mph. The minute a hole opens up and you put the pedal down, a minivan plastered with soccer ball and "I care" (put your cause here) stickers appears in your path -- ending the epiphany.

It begins to get on your nerves after a while. You pay all this money for a car with more built-in capability than some pure race cars had just a few decades ago, and you might as well be driving a primered and rust-pocked Ford Festiva with 257,000 miles. The sole bennie -- more precisely, the one usable thing you do get for your $30,000 or $50,000 (or more) that you didn't get in a clapped-out 70-horsepower Festiva -- is a better radio, maybe GPS and, of course, your cell phone with Bluetooth hook-up. Electronic soporifics to keep you distracted, to keep your mind off the mobile Skinner Box in which you spend 2-3 hours or more of your life each day. Two to three hours of your life going short distances, very very slowly.

Back in the '80s, rock crooner Sammy Hagar cut his signature track, "I Can't Drive 55," which contained the lament, "... what used to take two hours now takes all day... it took me 16 hours to get to L.A.!"

Sammy may not have realized how prescient he was being -- albeit from an entirely different angle. The Drive 55 crowd may ultimately win the battle for a slow-mo society by dint of sheer numbers.

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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.