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Speed: CLOSE ENCOUNTERS

HDT editors hit the road to report what truckers really face since the lifting of the national speed limit. Some drive, some ride with veteran pros. All tried to run the posted speed...or lower. Here are their personal accounts from across the country.

December 1996, TruckingInfo.com - Cover Story

by HDT staff

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Through Oregon we played hopscotch with a couple of trucks obeying the 55-mph limit, but could only wave to everyone else as they passed on the left.
We're not practiced speed observers but it seemed that most vehicles, and particularly most truckers, were running at around 65 mph. "Cannonballers," as we call high-speed travelers, were relatively rare.

Somewhere in eastern Oregon we declared ourselves a road hazard. A poky vehicle didn't seem to pose any great problems when there was just one other vehicle trying to pass. But when when you get several vehicles trying to maneuver at split speeds, things start to bunch up.

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For instance, a woman in a little red car passed us doing around 65. A truck, traveling at close to the same speed, wasn't far behind. They both stayed in the left lane to overtake a second truck moving only a few mph faster.

Tractor-trailers, as we all know, get six times bigger and 12 times noisier than they really are when you're in a car passing one, or being passed by one. The only thing more nerve wracking is seeing a heavy duty grille in your rear view mirror.

For a few seconds, anyway, this lady had herself boxed in by trucks. Perhaps it unnerved her because she slowed even more.

Meantime another car had passed us and, after sliding right in search of a clear lane, joined the parade to the left.

This incident illustrates how crowded the passing lane can get when some traffic is moving significantly slower.

In Idaho the speed limit rose dramatically: 75 mph for everybody.

Twenty mph below the maximum was a little too leisurely, even for us. We bumped our cruising speed to 65 and, surprisingly, seemed to flow with most of the traffic.

Lots of cars and some truckers passed us but very few seemed to be rolling faster than 75. One reason might have been that, according to the locals, Idaho's new limit came with a warning: 75 is the absolute maximum, you'll be ticketed at 76.

Or maybe there are drivers who just plain think 75 is too fast. We tried it and weren't comfortable. We also saw two drivers who brought back the time-honored argument: "It's not me I'm afraid of, it's the other guy."

Several miles out of Boise, a woman came up quickly on our left, suddenly appearing under the driver's-side rear view mirror. We moved right to give her more room and watched her drift in and out of her lane as she flashed along at a minimum of 75. Her rear view mirror was cocked toward her. She was fastidiously applying makeup.

A second driver was male, moving at about the same speed. He had a passenger and they seemed to be engaged in a lively conversation as he motored along at 75 or so. . .while shaving.

Going the Limit Draws the One-Finger Salute

By David A. Kolman, Senior Editor

I started my assignment on I-94 in Milwaukee, WI. The posted speed limit was 65 mph, but it seemed I was the only law-abiding citizen on that interstate that day. Everyone else was zipping along at considerably higher speeds. Kolman's Highway Traffic Observation #1: Where there is no police car visible, there is no speed limit.

I also found that "yield" and "merge" are foreign terms to the great majority of motorists. Kolman's Highway Traffic Observation #2: Anytime you come upon an on-ramp and there's someone trying to get into the traffic mix, there will always be a car on your left — usually in the blind spot — whose driver will not let you over.

On another part of my assignment, I expected my driving experience in the South to be rather pleasant. Southerners have a reputation for their natural courtesy and slow pace.

I borrowed a rig and headed out on I-85. I quickly discovered that Southern etiquette is apparently outlawed on the highways.

I settled in at 55 mph, no easy task when all five other lanes of traffic were zooming by at, I would guess, 70+ mph. I couldn't help myself; I eased the rig up to 60 mph. Traffic continued to blur past.

I could see in my mirrors the traffic stacking up behind me. The "greeting" from those that passed me grew in intensity.

Kolman's Highway Traffic Observation #3: The one-finger salute is as popular in the South as it is in the East.

I began wondering how many people where jotting down the How's My Driving telephone number on my trailer's rear.

Another rig pulled up alongside. The guy in the shotgun seat rolled down his window and motioned for me to do the same. As the rig drifted closer, the guy cupped his hands and hollered: "Ya'all got problems, bud?" "No," I shouted back. "Then giddy up and go or get it off the road," he yelled.

My creativity-while-driving award goes to that character in the raggedy pickup who, as he sped by, flashed a handmade sign that read: "A—hole!"

The final part of my drive-at-the-posted-limit was through New York. I was trucking along the Bruckner Expressway, having my doors blown off by every other vehicle, even a motorhome. In my mirrors I noticed a police car with his bubblegums flashing a ways back. "Just great," I said to myself while double checking the speedometer to see that I was right on the speed limit. I wondered what the fine was for holding up traffic.

The trooper was beside my rig but his lights were no longer flashing. Suddenly, he gave his siren and lights a short burst. The trooper clicked on his speaker and shouted: "The speed limit's 55, not 70, slow down!" He was yelling at the car on his left.

Traffic did eventually slow to the posted limit for a time. Two cars had stopped on the shoulder and the occupants were visiting with one another.

Kolman's Highway Traffic Observation #4: Long delays on crowded highways are due to rubbernecking by motorists observing insignificant events. Corollary: When I finally reach this particular point, I feel that I deserve to take the time to participate in the distraction as well.

Regardless of where I drove at the posted speed limit, I felt uncomfortable. Not because of the behavior of other motorists. I've been called names before.
Rather, maintaining the speed limit when all around you are speeding is taxing. It wore on me mentally because I felt I was an impediment to a smooth flow of traffic.

I also felt that I wasn't helping trucking's image. Consider how you feel when you're behind someone just moseying along — aggravated, agitated, irritated. You may even scream obscenities and flip them off.

The farthest thing from one's mind in these instances is that the plodder is obeying the law and you're breaking it.

Chicagoland At 55: `We're A Rolling Roadblock'

By Paul Abelson, Contributing Editor

For this Midwest portion of our experiment I drove with Caterpillar Engine Co. driver trainer Phil Hook in his C12-powered Kenworth T-600B. We figured we could get a good mix of traffic conditions in and around Chicagoland.
We met at the Rochelle, IL, Petro truckstop and headed southbound on I-39. Then it was eastbound toward Chicago on I-80.

Other trucks kept pace with the passenger cars while we held to the state's 55-mph limit for trucks.

The only thing our truck passed was an older pickup towing a camper. Even the high winds and intermittent thunder showers didn't drop other trucks' speeds to 55. From I-80, we turned north on I-55 into the Chicago metro area.
The further north on I-55 we went, the heavier traffic got, and the more impatient the cars seemed to be. While we maintained 55, a small Navistar International day cab pulling a 53-foot van slowly passed us, about 4 or 5 mph faster.

The four-wheelers around us grew increasingly impatient. As soon as there was enough daylight between that trailer and the nose of our Kenworth, two of them shot around us on the left, cut in, and passed the long van on the right. They paid no heed to the International's directional signal nor his attempt to pull back in front of us.

Even when the highway opened-up to three lanes, we felt like we were a rolling roadblock. At one point, a Freightliner from a major truckload fleet came up behind us, but was pinned in by a string of four-wheelers. We estimated their speed at around 70. (In with the cars was one highballing local dirt hauler.)
Before we headed up I-294 toward O'Hare Airport, I yielded the driver's seat to Phil. With the weather as miserable as it was, we agreed that his driving experience far outweighed my enthusiasm.

Turns out we need not have changed seats after all. Things went smoothly on this wide stretch of Interstate. With four lanes, a 55-mph limit and only moderate traffic, we were able to stay out of everyone's way.

Even so, Phil kicked it up to 60 to get a bit closer to the flow of traffic. We did see an owner-operator practically get into a taxi's trunk doing what had to be better than 70.

Near O'Hare, we turned west on I-90. After the first toll booth, we shifted over to the center lane to let ramp traffic merge. Before we could get back to the slow lane, a number of cars, a van and two heavy trucks went by us on the right.

For the rest of trip, we kept it between 60 and 63, but we still didn't pass anyone.

While economy definitely was better at 55 and the in-cab noise level was much more comfortable, we felt as if we were a moving hazard during some segments of the trip.

As Phil noted, "Driving legally with split speed limits tends to bring out the worst in both passenger car drivers and, to a lesser extent, speeding truckers."

Paul Abelson is a freelance writer and former truck fleet manager.

 


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