Washington — They are the kind of traffic tie-ups that usually accumulate on Interstate highways behind confused out-of-towners, ``Sunday drivers,'' or oblivious motorists who establish a permanent presence in the passing lane but don't pass. Motorists in Maryland and Massachusetts faced this kind of jam over the July 4 holiday. But these ``Sunday drivers'' were state police officers working to enforce the nation's 55 mile-an-hour speed limit. The result was long lines of cars and trucks moving bumper to bumper down Interstate highways behind what amounted to ``rolling roadblocks.''
Concerned over reports that almost 90 percent of all motorists traveling on Route 95 between Baltimore and Washington were speeding, the Maryland State Police two months ago began using rolling roadblocks on major highways thoughout the state.
``We realize this was a fairly serious measure, but we had a serious problem on our hands,'' says Maryland State Police Sgt. Bill Tower. ``We have had reports that motorists were indiscriminately passing our marked and unmarked [police] cars.''
While numerous studies have shown that the lower 55 m.p.h. national speed limit saves both fuel and lives, concern among state officials about compliance with the law is also motivated by federal penalties against states with a high percentage of speeders on their Interstate highways. In passing the 55 m.p.h. law, Congress decreed that up to 10 percent of federal highway construction funds may be withheld from any state in which speeders comprise more than 50 percent of drivers on major highways.
A beefed-up police presence and wider use of radar are being initiated on Maryland highways, in addition to the occasional state police roadblocks. Now, long lines of cars and trucks are frequently seen trailing two, three, or four police cars abreast, setting a 55 m.p.h. pace.
But even this tactic is apparently not enough to discourage the most determined speeders. To date, 21 drivers have actually tried to pass a police-led rolling roadblock in Maryland, Tower says. He notes that each of the drivers was promptly charged with speeding and illegally driving on the shoulder of the highway (the only way to get around the rolling roadblock).
In Massachusetts, officials decided last week to use rolling roadblocks on four major highways in the state after preliminary speed surveys indicated that more than 50 percent of motorists using those roads were exceeding 55. Two years ago Massachusetts was listed as a top state for speeders and faced a significant loss of highway funds. But state officials were able to reduce the speeding rate in subsequent months and no funds were forfeited.
In fact, so far no funds have been forfeited by any state.
This year, the states with excessive speeding rates are Maryland, Vermont, and Arizona.
In Maryland last year, 55.9 percent of all highway drivers were speeders. Unless the speeding rate is reduced to below 50 percent in the coming months, the state could lose as much as $5.8 million in federal highway assistance. Some $1.7 million in federal highway funds are on the line in Vermont, with a 51.8 percent speeding rate. Arizona's 56.3 percent rate puts in jeopardy about $5 million in highway funds.
The speeding rates are determined by compiling data collected from road-monitoring equipment, which logs the number and size of cars and trucks on the road and their speed at the checkpoint. The data from each checkpoint are averaged into a single statewide speeding rate.
State officials in Maryland and Vermont complain that their statewide averages would be considerably lower if they simply raised the 50 m.p.h. speed limit on a number of state highways to 55, so they would be included in the monitoring.
The officials figure that such a move would broaden their statistical base and easily shift their states under the 50 percent speeding rate requirement. But state officials note that while such statistical gerrymandering might guarantee receipt of federal highway funds, it would probably reduce road safety on state highways.
``We have discussed raising the speed limits on some highways, but we don't think it is in the interest of safety,'' says Hugo Sartorelli, Vermont's assistant director of highway safety.
In Arizona, as in other large Western and rural states, the debate is over whether the universal application of the 55 m.p.h. speed limit is fair, given the long distances of empty highway between towns in some states.