May 03, 2005

When Getting There Ain't Half the Fun

WASHINGTON, BOSTON, NEW YORK, SAN FRANCISCO. These are the places where The New York Times found people to speak about the ghastly, hideous, horrible idea of lowering the speed limit back to 55 mph. Yes, you read that right. Fifty-five miles per hour.

Gee. Maybe it would have been nice for the guys writing the story to, I don't know, see how the idea would have played in Michigan. Or New Hampshire. Or North Dakota or Tennessee or Arizona. You know, places where people actually use automobiles or light trucks to travel long distances on a regular basis. These are also places, one reckons, where most people would consider the return of the 55 mph speed limit a Biblical curse, along the lines of a plague of locusts or having one's teeth ripped out in an industrial accident.

But no. That would have required -- well, flipping through a phone book looking up strange area codes. Plus, given the tone of the article from Messrs Jad Mouawad and Simon Romero, it's pretty clear they don't particularly care what those people out in the provinces think. It's also pretty clear they don't know much about life out in the provinces, either.

I mean, consider this gem of a paragraph:

Instead of opting for small fuel-efficient cars, people switched to large sport utility vehicles and larger pickups. As drivers groaned and states fought for their right to speed, the limit was raised.

Memo to The New York Times: out here in the provinces, people actually use these "light trucks" to -- wait for it -- haul stuff around, especially when going on vacation or doing yard work. Plus, out here in the provinces, some people actually have more than one or two children, and as such these light trucks are useful.

Lastly, you may be dimly aware that the United States continues to have a domestic auto industry. Their light trucks are superior to those which foreign suppliers produce. Further, as amazing as it may seem, some people actually prefer God-fearing domestic vehicles instead of foofy and underpowered foreign cars.

But the Times article is a laundry list of bad ideas -- either they don't work, or even worse they do work, but have such awful economic consequences we'd all be worse off than before. For instance:

Other industrialized countries, especially in Europe, have been much more successful than the United States and have managed to actually lower oil demand, or at least keep it in check. That comes from higher diesel use and higher taxes. In France and Germany, a gallon of gasoline sells for as much as $6, with taxes accounting for about 80 percent of that.

Few politicians in America might risk ridicule or rejection by explicitly supporting higher taxes on gasoline, one of the surest ways to limit the nation's dependence on oil.

Perhaps the Times has forgotten that, even in New York, the economy is fueled through transport. All those organic vegetables and chi-chi fou-fou scented candles and movie-popcorn containers and ridiculous clothing items are brought into or shipped around the city on -- wait for it -- trucks. As such, increasing the cost of transport tends to increase the cost of everything else, making for a world of pain.

Speaking of which, it's strange how the writers don't see how the above-mentioned paragraph fails to jive with this paragraph lower down:

Still, Americans can expect to pay record prices for gasoline this summer. According to the latest national average compiled by the Energy Department, gasoline prices at the pump averaged $2.24 a gallon, up 42 cents from last year; they are expected to touch a record $2.35 a gallon this summer.

Polls show that higher gasoline prices are increasingly hurting Americans, and the president is pressing Congress to revive an energy bill that has been stalled for four years.

If people are getting hurt at $2.25 a gallon, what would happen if gasoline taxes kicked it up to $4 or $5 or $6 per gallon? Eh? I mean, come on. Besides, we have all seen the stories about how people are dealing with gasoline prices -- they're cutting back on driving if they can do so. This would seem to suggest that we can dispense with all the Seventies-era ideas, because the market is already eating into demand.

Besides, it's not as if the Seventies-era ideas worked all that well. Consider this paragraph down near the end:

Roland Hwang, the vehicles policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco, estimated the savings of the speed limit in 1983 at 2.5 billion gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel, or 2.2 percent of the total use for these types of fuels.

2.2 percent? That's it? That's why we'd bring back the 55 mph speed limit? It sounds like the NYT guys take the subway. And it also sounds like they should've done more work on the story, and should've talked with folks who actually drive all the time. Fortunately, I know the perfect place to do this.

The next time the Times decides to write a story about speed limits, I would invite them to actually send a writer out to the US-23 corridor, which runs from Ann Arbor, Mich., to a bit west of Toledo, Ohio.

This road, for those of you unfamiliar with it, is a four-lane highway and pretty much a straight shot between the two points. As such, it is one of the closest things America has to an autobahn. The top speed on it is just 70 mph, but in general drivers will do well above 80 mph; I have been passed on the right while doing 85. Yet barring inclement weather, the road is perfectly fine to drive on at that speed. Traffic flows smoothly and I can't say I ever saw an accident on it.

I can't say anyone traveling the road would take kindly to a 55 mph speed limit, either. So hopefully the Times will broaden its horizons a little bit. Because there are lots of us who would rather eat glass than drive 55. Besides, as many of us from the provinces know, getting there often ain't half the fun.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at May 3, 2005 08:20 AM | TrackBack

I would make it my personal mission in life to end the political careers of any yahoos who lowered the speed limit back to 55. That would be HORRIBLE. Especially given my commute here in the Metro Detroit area. Good Lord.

Posted by: Geoff Brown at May 4, 2005 12:23 PM

Funny, I was planning to write exactly the same thing as our friend Geoff, supra. Actually, mine was, "Should this infernal lowering of the speed limit come to pass, I shall single-handedly unseat all the lawmakers who voted for such a horrendous idea."

But I'm not worried. When the first thought that pops into a reader's head after seeing that article is "I will work to destroy the career of those who implement this," that speaks volumes about its political viability. This willn't happen.

Posted by: Matthew S. Schwartz at May 5, 2005 02:54 PM

What I don't get is why they thought this story would be a good idea. My God -- didn't they think to run it past the one guy in the office from someplace like Shreveport?

Posted by: Benjamin Kepple at May 5, 2005 03:22 PM

Because the Times doesn't understand flyover country.

Posted by: Matthew S. Schwartz at May 7, 2005 06:22 PM

Maybe they need a good focus group or something.

Posted by: Benjamin Kepple at May 8, 2005 09:51 PM