Slowpokes Make Point at 55 M.P.H.


A bunch of well-intentioned Southern Californians drove their fellow citizens bonkers Sunday . . . by obeying the law.

For about 30 miles down the San Diego Freeway, they did just about the worst thing you can do to your fellow freeway drivers:

They stayed within the speed limit.

On the lovely spring afternoon--perfect cruising weather--about a dozen driving enthusiasts revved up their sports cars, stuck them in fourth gear and rode at a stubborn 55 miles an hour from Chatsworth all the way to Redondo Beach to make a point: that the federal speed limit is outdated and ignored.


That got no argument from the folks who whizzed past, glowering at the 55-ers, tailgating them pointedly.

“We just want to see some kind of sanity when it comes to driving,” said Tina Van Curen, downshifting her Alfa Romeo into third to keep it from bolting ahead of the protest pack. “The point is, the law just doesn’t work. It’s like Prohibition--it’s a foolish idea, and nobody pays attention to it.”

Motorists on at least 24 other highways across the country did the same thing Sunday, on a National Civil Obedience Day sponsored by the Wisconsin-based National Motorists Assn.

Their protest is aimed at getting Congress to repeal the federal speed limit law imposed during the Arab oil embargo in 1974 and to return such authority to the states.

If drivers had been voting with their fists Sunday, the protesters would have won--they had so many shaken at them.

Soon after the convoy began in Chatsworth, the drivers--mostly members of the Alfa Romeo Owners of Southern California--spread in phalanx across three lanes, leaving only the fast lane clear.


As they drove along in prim order, one of the first to whiz past them was a tiny Toyota Starlet, driven by an even tinier elderly woman who could barely see above her steering wheel.

The slow drive made for some slow burns and fast maneuvers. A hothead in a blue Mustang, frustrated at not finding passing room, drove onto the right shoulder of the freeway to break free. Even some California Highway Patrol cars hurried past.

Many were not going slow enough to read the bumper stickers and signs on the convoy of cars: “Let’s End the Hypocrisy, Repeal 55.”

Among those drivers who did, several signaled their approval--as they passed the cars and the limit.

“It felt like we could have stepped out and walked at that speed,” said Al Allen, whose wife was behind the wheel of their Porsche 914 for Sunday’s protest. “But I think we made our point; we demonstrated how ridiculous driving 55 is, and how frustrated drivers get at that speed.”

For Van Curen, a computer consultant who races cars on speedway tracks in her spare time, the afternoon trip was a bit unsettling, even if it was for a good cause.


“This is the longest trip down the San Diego Freeway ever,” she groused as her fellow protesters broke ranks just enough to let a stream of cars pass on either side. “Here we are, creeping along, being run down by everybody else.”

Then, as Van Curen was heading down the Sepulveda Pass, she looked to her right. A tattered old Yugo was chugging past her, leaving a trail of stinky exhaust fumes.

“Now that’s embarrassing,” she said. “I normally would never let that happen.”

National Motorists Assn. President Jim Baxter, who spoke to The Times from Wisconsin, said speed limits should reflect the driving patterns of motorists who usually drive at least 65 and accommodate most highways, which are designed for speeds of up to 80 m.p.h.

On Sunday, protesters’ intent was to show how unworkable the federal law is--just by obeying it.

Soon after the drivers hit the 405 Freeway, cars began piling up behind them, trying to find ways to break through.

Their original three-lane spread had to be abandoned because they were obeying another law--one car length between vehicles for every 10 m.p.h. of speed--and speeders kept cutting into the open spaces and breaking up the convoy.


The group got so fragmented that a few drivers never made it to a rendezvous point in Redondo Beach, where, at a gas station off the freeway, over the roar of speeding cars, some of the motorists sipped soft drinks and traded stories like Indy drivers.

A man said he was afraid that one angry driver was about to shoot him. Another said that traveling at 55 was akin to riding in an old milk truck.

Law enforcement agencies have long said that the speed limit not only saves gas but saves lives as well.

Perhaps to stress their slogan that “55 Saves Lives,” officers in several CHP cars followed the protest vehicles for part of the trip.

Legislators too have yet to see the wisdom of returning to the states the ability to set the speed limit. Before 1974, some states allowed speeds of up to 80 m.p.h., while several left it to the discretion of the freeway driver.

Nevertheless, Baxter said similar driving events nationwide were successful--at least for protesters, if not for Sunday drivers.


At least 50 cars showed up in New Jersey, reining in speed-minded drivers on a highway jaunt there. And in Wisconsin, Baxter and his 1986 Audi trundled along Interstate 90 outside Madison, holding up the rear of a caravan of about 30 protesters in everything from vans and family wagons to motorcycles and Corvettes.

“What we’re saying is, hey, if people don’t like it, they should do something about it,” Baxter said. “They could start by telling their elected representatives to change the law.

“Luckily, we had ample signage on our cars so people knew what we were doing,” said Baxter, who lobbies full time for repeal of the federal law. “If we didn’t, I’m sure we would have gotten a lot of single-digit fingers.”