On Open Blacktop of West, Driving 55 Has Its Limits

I AM somewhere south of Wagontire, Ore., headed north along state highway 395. Coming down off the Hogback Summit, Alkali Lake on the left, Juniper Mountain on the right, I spot a B-52 bomber skimming across the high desert on a low-level training mission.

My eyes narrow. My right foot gains weight. Overtaking the unsuspecting Air Force bomber, which is thundering along just above this two-lane strip of roadway, I blow by him in my rented Dodge and pull up into a victory roll.

True story. Happens all the time out here in the wide open spaces, where news that senators back in Washington have voted to lift the federal highway speed limit has been met with some bemusement. (OK, the victory roll was an embellishment.)

It's not that we're speed-freaks or outlaws. It's just that there's so much territory between places we need or want to be, and 55 or even 65 miles per hour can seem pretty pokey when unobstructed blacktop stretches out between you and the horizon.

When lawmakers passed the national speed-limit law after the 1973 oil embargo and made federal highway funds contingent on state enforcement, it was big news in the West. Before then, Montana and Nevada had no daytime speed limit, and 15 other states allowed speeds up to 75.

Highway traffic fatalities have dropped since then, from a high of more than 55,000 a year before the federal speed law to fewer than 41,000.

But accidents tied to speeding still cost the US economy $24 billion a year, says Transportation Secretary Federico Pena. And he warned that allowing states to lift the 55 mile-per-hour limit (65 on rural interstates since 1987) could increase the annual traffic fatality rate by nearly 5,000.

Out where the deer and the antelope play there's some difference of opinion about that. Chad Dornsife, head of the Nevada chapter of the National Motorists Association, cites federal statistics showing that "of the 40,600 fatalities ... only 4 percent to 6 percent of these occurred on interstate highways, and only 2 percent to 4 percent of those were caused by excessive speed."

"Ironically, higher speeds are found where higher speeds are safe," he wrote recently in the Portland Oregonian newspaper. "And vehicles traveling faster than the average are the least likely to be involved in an accident."

In any case, there's no doubting the difference between stretching the limit around - say - Boston (where I've survived two combat driving tours with fenders and nerves intact) and Roundup, Mont., where the greater concern is avoiding livestock and wildlife.

The move to let states decide how fast their drivers should go is part of the push to rein in Uncle Sam, a generic concern in the West. (Except, of course, for subsidies, water projects, and military bases.) There was talk during the Senate debate of "paternalism" and "fiscal blackmail."

"States are in a better position to set speed limits," asserted the San Jose Mercury-News in an editorial last week, while at the same time arguing that the California limits should not be changed. "Raising the limit won't turn speeders into law-abiding citizens. It will just encourage them to drive 85 or 90."

There are those out here who flout any motor vehicle restrictions. Like the militia members and self-styled "freemen," who refuse even to register their cars and trucks and who conspiratorially believe that highway signs carry secretly coded directions for invaders from the United Nations and Council on Foreign Relations.

But the vast majority of Westerners, even though they may be inclined to test the speed limit a teensy bit now and then, are really quite mild-mannered on the road.

One reason may be the attitude of some patrolling officials here in the American outback. Such as the one encountered recently when a usually law-abiding newspaper correspondent driving through rural Idaho was pulled over for exceeding the 55-limit (by a fair amount, he would confess).

After a pleasant exchange with the young deputy sheriff and the routine examination of license and registration, he was presented a speeding ticket - for $5.

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