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Staying Alive at 65: Life in the New-Speed Lane : Along Rural Highways, Accidents Are Up Only Slightly but Truckers Feel the Pinch

November 08, 1987|DAVID LARSEN | Times Staff Writer

The truck driver was making a run up and back along Interstate 5 in the San Joaquin Valley.

While heading north, he was pulled to the side and given a ticket for speeding. Hours later, heading back south, he was again stopped for the same reason, and given a second ticket.

According to a spokesman for the California Highway Patrol, the trucker's only lament was: "I didn't think you'd be here by the time I got back!"

It has been five months since Gov. Deukmejian signed legislation raising the maximum speed limit from 55 m.p.h. to 65 m.p.h. on 1,157 miles of the rural interstate highways in California. And the question is, was it a good motion notion?

Although it may be a bit early to draw firm conclusions, certain findings on California roads have already emerged:

- The number of tickets issued to truckers is increasing, while citations to drivers of other vehicles are decreasing.

- The average speed on the affected highways, in effect, has not changed noticeably.

- Accidents attributable to speed have gone up only slightly.

- Motorists, when their travels allow a choice, seem to prefer the higher-speed roads.

- The increased-speed rate hasn't noticeably increased gas consumption.

The new speed law went into effect May 28. According to Susan Cowan-Scott, California Highway Patrol public affairs officer in Sacramento, this is what happened in the four months since, compared with the same four months last year:

- For truckers, who are still required to observe the 55 m.p.h. limit, citations for excessive speed on the new-limit routes increased from 3,188 last year to 5,957.

- For all other vehicles (mostly cars and motorcycles) on the new-limit routes, citations for excessive speed decreased to 32,184 from 51,438 last year.

"Prior to the new law, an officer was probably more likely to go after a car, because that vehicle was probably more in violation of the law," Cowan-Scott said. "Now, in the designated areas, if both a car and a truck are going 65 m.p.h., the car is in compliance, but the truck isn't."

While the truckers may be restrained in their applause, however, they aren't doing that much booing either.

"You hear some moaning and groaning at the truck stops," Dennis Marcusson Jr., a driver with Keeney Trucking in Maywood, said. "But now with the two-speed maximums, we usually don't have cars getting in our way.

"Used to be, we were all dancing together," he added. "And that's when accidents can happen. Oh, it bugs me once in a while when I'm being passed and I realize I have to stay in the slow lane, and I'm not allowed to keep up with the cars. But then the time comes when I'm the one in the car.

"We fudge a little on the speed in the trucks," he went on. "I think a lot of the guys cruise at 60. And that might be a good compromise, to let the trucks go 60."

Fred Rylee, however, doesn't see it that way. Rylee, a CHP officer for 20 years, is currently assigned to the Central Division, which stretches roughly from Bakersfield to Modesto--and includes 245 miles on Interstate 5 where 65 m.p.h. is allowed for cars.

"In those areas, when I stop a truck for speeding, and the driver complains about cars being allowed to go faster, I remind him that 55 has always been the top," the 47-year-old CHP officer said.

"In fact, when I was a kid, my father was a truck driver," Rylee said. "I remember that right after World War II, when I used to ride in the front seat with him, he had to keep the speedometer at no more than 40. The limit was that low for trucks then."

Sometimes when he is writing a trucker a ticket, the officer said, he is asked why the cars are allowed to go faster. "I tell them we are talking about a 3,000-pound vehicle as opposed to one that may weigh 80,000 pounds."

A Mile or Two Leeway

However, Rylee doesn't view the higher limit for cars as a license to speed.

He said he may allow a mile or two leeway, depending on the weather and traffic, but that is all. "Our main concern is people getting greedy," he said. "At one time the speed limit was 70 in rural areas, and some people think they can do that again. They've been given something as it is, they shouldn't abuse it."

On the other hand, he does feel that one benefit of allowing 65 in certain areas is that motorists are more relaxed. "When they were on, say, a 300-mile journey and they had to keep it at 55 all the way, I think there was a degree of frustration," he said.

Some of the new statistics seem to bear that out.

To find out just how fast all the vehicles are going, Caltrans has had an ongoing program on the approximately 15,000 miles of state highways (of which 2,386 are interstate) ever since 1974, when the speed limit was reduced to 55 m.p.h. nationwide to save fuel during the Arab oil embargo.

Gene Berthelsen, chief public information officer with Caltrans, said 118 locations are monitored around the clock--by means of octagonal wire loops in the pavement which can plug into data collectors.

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