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Stay Alive at 55? You’ve Gotta Be Joking : Speed limit: No gunplay (this time), but angry glares and obscene gestures greet the lone driver obeying the law.

<i> Dave Beckwith is a commuter in Irvine</i>

The summer sun was setting over Southern California, and most of the evening commuters were home relaxing on their patios or cooking dinner on the barbecue. Ahead was the 55-mile drive from Pasadena to Irvine. Being a little tired, I knew I needed a mind game . . . something to keep my brain alert.

Since traffic was moderate, I decided to try an experiment: If I drive exactly 55 m.p.h., how many cars will pass me and how many will I pass?

I entered the Foothill Freeway in Pasadena, set the cruise control on 55 m.p.h., and proceeded in the right-hand lane--driving through Monrovia, Azusa, Glendora, then to the Orange Freeway through Pomona, Diamond Bar, Brea, Anaheim and finally to the Santa Ana Freeway through Santa Ana to Irvine.

Hundreds of vehicles whizzed by: new cars, old junkers, motorcycles, trucks, campers, patrol cars, VW Bugs. I lost count after 130 vehicles had sped past me.

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Meanwhile, I thought someone would be driving 55 m.p.h. or less. Not a chance. I did not pass a single vehicle during the trip.

As I held my spot and speed in the slow lane, I felt like a paranoid little old man from Pasadena. Four drivers blared their horns at me, seven or eight impatient motorists flipped their high-beam lights, several gave me dirty glares as they pulled around.

And one irate jerk honked, pulled up next to me, and gave me an obscene gesture before flooring it.

At least, he didn’t point a pistol at me and open fire. The glares and scowls on some of the drivers’ faces made me wonder about bulletproof car windows. Evel Knievel would likely look at this challenge and say, “Jump the Snake River, no problem. Drive the slow lane on a Southern California Freeway--are you nuts or what?”

Wondering if this was an isolated incident, I tried the experiment two other times: a 56-mile trip from San Bernardino to Irvine and an 83-mile trip from San Diego to Irvine.

Not once in 3 1/2 hours of 55-m.p.h. driving did I pass another vehicle.

Freeway-jungle survival requires a choice: drive with nagging guilt and one eye on the rear-view mirror or drive fearing the hostilities of other drivers. What a dilemma: guilt or glares! I wonder how many accidents are caused by drivers keeping one eye on the rear-view mirror for the black and white?

Unfortunately, the first law of safe driving has become “Look out for the police,” and the second is like unto the first, “Look out for the drive-by shooting.”

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To correct this insanity, I recommend the following:

1. Establish a realistic speed limit for driving conditions.

2. Give drivers a 2- to 3-m.p.h. leeway, but no more.

3. Communicate clearly that the speed limit will be strictly enforced.

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4. Enforce the speed limit.

Perhaps the speed limit should be changed from 55 m.p.h. to 65 or 70 m.p.h., but whatever the speed limit, it should be the flow of traffic. A driver shouldn’t feel like an idiot for obeying the law. In other words, it shouldn’t be unsafe to drive the speed limit.


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