The fast lane

IN California, everything happens on the freeway or just off the freeway or on the way to the freeway. And once on it or near it, there is no turning back. To live in California is to come to terms with the state's complex highway system or become a pedestrian. Perhaps that is why Californians are up in arms over the federal government's latest ukase mandating that the state intensify its efforts to enforce the 55 m.p.h. speed limit. Under the threat of denying California funds allocated under the Federal-Aid Highway Act, state and local police have been given the word: ``Start enforcing the 55 m.p.h. speed limit . . . or else.''

Now, denying a hot-rodding Californian the right to drive faster than 55 m.p.h. on the freeway is like denying a Texan the right to bear arms.

Pushed to the limit, men will revolt over what may seem to be the most innocuous restrictions. In one state it might be the right to fish out of season. In another it could be the right to gather firewood on public land. In California it's the right to drive faster than the posted 55 m.p.h. speed limit.

This despite a recent poll which indicated that most Californians favor the 55 m.p.h. speed limit and would maintain its enforcement. But such sentiment is more honored in the breach than in the practice, as anyone attempting to keep to the 55 m.p.h. speed limit on freeways will quickly discover.

No question, Californians love speed. Look at the cars on California highways, the Porsches, the Stingrays, the Alfa Romeos. Listen to what the commercials continually blare over the radio: ``Take off in the car of your fantasies. At 134 m.p.h. you'll feel like you're standing still.'' Or, ``Unleash your fondest desires. Bring back the thrill of driving. Go from standing still to 60 in six seconds.'' This in a state where the newspapers daily report harrowing high-speed police chases extending over hund reds of miles of freeway and often through heavy traffic.

Being Californians, everyone in the state has a suggestion as to how to keep motorists from exceeding 55 m.p.h. Using radar guns along open stretches of highway is a perennial proposal, despite the Legislature's repeated refusal to employ radar on freeways. Another would have all cars, from the fleetest turbocharged racer to the slowest 4-cylinder compact, mechanically altered so as not to exceed the limit.

Still another suggestion is to install an alarm in every vehicle which would give off a piercing sound each time the driver went over 55. The noise would prove so distracting that motorists would glady submit to the speed limit rather than drive with a sound loud enough to loosen the fillings in one's teeth.

My own proposal is much simpler, and it would be easy to follow: Don't raise the bridge, lower the river. With the federal government's concurrence, raise the speed limit from 55 to 60 m.p.h. on all freeways and Inter-state highways. Anyone caught exceeding the 60 m.p.h. limit would be heavily fined. The 55 m.p.h. limit was imposed during the fuel shortages of the '70s to conserve gasoline and, almost as an afterthought, to save lives. Now that the shortage appears to have passed, there is no pressing n eed to restrict cars to 55 m.p.h. or less.

Granted, the amount of fuel consumed at 60 m.p.h. is somewhat more than at 55 m.p.h. But it is significantly less than at 70 or 75 m.p.h., the de facto cruising speed on most California freeways today.

If more drivers could be kept to a speed of 60 m.p.h., there would be less impulse driving, less sideswiping, less weaving between lanes, and less tailgating. So let's relegate the 55 m.p.h. speed limit to the driver's instruction manuals, recognizing the statute for what it is: a noble experiment that isn't working. Oh yes, I suggest the new 60 m.p.h. limit be first tried out in California. If it can work here it can work anywhere.

Bennett Karmin lives, works, and drives in California.

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