Life in the Slow Lane Gets Pretty Lonely : To go with the flow of traffic--and, hey, we Californians love to go with the flow--is to violate the speed limit.

If my 9-year-old Mustang were a real horse, if it had four legs instead of four wheels, you might say it gets rode hard and put up wet. I don't baby it, yet somehow it's logged nearly 100,000 miles. The r.p.m. gauge stopped working long ago, and I don't really trust the speedometer either. Like when the needle points to 80 m.p.h. and cars are still zooming on by. Or even when the needle points to 85.

I drive fast, but not that fast.

I find it hard to believe my aging Mustang--a pokey four-cylinder job, not the 5.0-liter muscle machine--could do 85 without exploding. My gut tells me that at freeway speeds the speedometer is about 5 m.p.h. off. So when the needle shows 80, maybe I'm doing 75, tops. And 20 m.p.h. over the limit isn't really that fast, is it?

OK, so I'm usually the passer, not the passee. But no matter what the occasional Highway Patrol officer tells me, I'm hardly the fastest guy on the freeway. Over each five-mile stretch, two or three or four drivers may zip past. (The CHP overlooks these characters and picks on me every three years, like clockwork, keeping the bad driving points on my record and my insurance rates high.)

Given my wicked ways, it was reassuring Sunday to learn that Caltrans and the CHP acknowledge the obvious: Freeway speeds are creeping up, up, up. To go with the flow of traffic--and, hey, we Californians love to go with the flow--is to violate the speed limit. (And the 55 m.p.h.-limit, lest we forget, was forced upon us by President Richard M. Nixon, who actually had a freeway named for him before becoming the only U.S. President to resign in disgrace.)

A Caltrans survey in '92 found that 60% of vehicles exceeded the 55-m.p.h. limit, and 15% exceeded 65 m.p.h. A '92 survey of California found that 85% are speeders, which strikes me as much more credible. And I doubt I'm the only one who thinks the speeds have climbed since '92.

"We're behaving like cockroaches," UCLA psychology professor Harold Gerard told Times reporter Richard Simon. Studies show that roaches run faster if another roach is present. "We're responding to every one else."

Given the paucity of current data, I conducted my own survey on Monday, targeting a group of individuals who are accustomed to being compared to cockroaches. I blanketed the Valley Edition editorial staff with my e-mail query.

Nearly 40 colleagues responded. Several described driving habits more conservative than my own--and a few should be stripped of their licenses.

"Driving is so dangerous that I am very glad that the speed limit is 55," one reporter replied. "What they really ought to do is make it much harder to get a driver's license. Been down to the DMV office lately? It's like Bellevue. Every wacko in L.A. standing in line."

Now here, it seemed, was someone who actually drove like my mother. But he didn't really say how fast he drove, so I sought specifics.

"I set the cruise control at around 62," he responded. "I let people pass me. It's safer and relieves your anxiety."

In fact, only one person admitted to routinely obeying the speed limit. But, she added, "When I was single, doing 125 in a Corvette at 4 a.m. was great!"

My research suggests that 65 m.p.h. is a rather conservative speed these days. "I drive between 65 and 70," one person explained. ". . . That makes me middle of the road. I pass a lot of people and get passed a lot too."

A few quotable responses:

"Re speeding, I am invoking my Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination."

"Do I break the speed limit? Is the Pope Catholic? Does a bear . . ." (You know the rest.)

"I drive 80, usually, use the car-pool lane when I can (even though I'm alone), and use the bicycle lane on surface streets to end-around the long lines of slow traffic. I am a menace, but a nice guy."

"Um, when there's a breaking story across the Valley I usually hit 80-85 in my meager Nissan Sentra so I can get there while the bodies are still fresh (assuming there's no traffic). I think the media should be allowed to speed much like cops or ambulances."

There are, alas, limits to First Amendment protections.

Sportswriter Gary Klein never fessed up to his own speed, but he shared the story of a Kansas City Royals baseball scout named Guy Hansen. Pulled over on his way home from a Vegas scouting trip, Hansen complained that the cop's radar reading was off. To prove it, Hansen got out his own radar gun, the one he uses to time pitchers' fastballs.

Together, the cop and the baseball scout clocked the passing traffic and in the end the cop let Hansen off without a ticket.

Most of us aren't so lucky. On Monday, I decided to be a rebel. I decided to obey the law. Peer pressure be damned. I was determined not to exceed 55 miles per hour.

My rebellion lasted about three minutes. Even in the slow lane, I was holding up traffic, encouraging tailgating and lane changes that otherwise would have been unnecessary. I was an accident waiting to happen. And so, because no man is an island, I decided to raise my personal limit to 65 m.p.h.

Now, if my speedometer really is screwed up, perhaps I was doing about 60. Botts' Dots passed in slow motion. A fat RV pulled away from me. Hundreds of vehicles passed. And I passed exactly two. All those cars and trucks--and only two seemed to be doing 55.

One was a classic Mercedes roadster, whose driver may have been protecting his investment. The other was a little pickup with an ungainly load of plastic pipe sticking out the back.

Life in the slow lane wasn't much fun. Through Sun Valley I drove behind a truck carrying a load of smelly asphalt. Bits of gritty black dust blew back into my car. And when a pretty woman drove past, it took a measure of willpower not to pick up the pace for a second glance.

The experiment is over. Soon--even before you read this, actually--I'll be back in the thick of the scofflaws.

I figure I can safely drive in the 70s for at least another year or so, at which time my insurer will instruct the Highway Patrol it's time to give me another ticket.

Scott Harris' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Readers may write to Harris at the Times Valley Edition, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth, Calif. 91311. Please include a phone number. Address TimesLink or Prodigy e-mail to YQTU59A ( via the Internet: YQTU59A@prodigy.com).

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