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Sunday, Dec 21, 2014
Tom Jackson Columns

Jackson: Sure, raise speed limit; but fix passing-lane-hogs problem, too

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The annual Busiest Travel Weekend wraps up today, bringing with it this rancor-inducing inevitability: On every divided highway from here to where you want to get, other motorists (certainly not you, enlightened and courteous reader) will be hogging the passing lane at approximately 3 mph below the posted limit.

No, I don’t know why they do this. I am not other drivers’ therapist. My best guess is they have assumed moral authority over other travelers’ predilection for flouting the law. It’s a citizen’s arrest on rubber. If they don’t move, we can’t speed. What’ll you bet they all have left-of-center voting records, too?

Worse, when, by tapping your horn or flashing your brights, you gently encourage them to make way for freedom-loving faster traffic — these would-be drivers assuming personal responsibility for certain risks (tickets, points on their licenses, higher insurance premiums) entailed by exercising individual liberty — oftentimes the most useful response is a middle-finger salute.

I mean, at least you know what you’re dealing with.

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Sometimes, alas, conditions degenerate. Our dawdling lane Scrooge mashes his brakes (encouraging multi-car pileups behind him), eases off the accelerator, or matches speed with a vehicle in the adjacent lane, creating a clot on the highway like a pig traveling through a python.

Especially endearing are slowpokes who, noting your resigned-but-peaceful attempt to pass on the right, transmogrify into Jimmie Johnson charging for the checkered flag. Who are these people?

Only rarely — at least in my experience, spanning six decades and covering about three-quarters of a million driving miles — does the dawdler clear the way in a timely, efficient and uncomplaining manner. Even then you have to wonder what they were thinking in the first place. It’s the passing lane. If you’re not actively passing somebody, shove over.

I mention this today not simply because it is the close of the annual Busiest Travel Weekend; nor because, as I motored home from the North Carolina Blue Ridge on Wednesday night, all of what I described above happened on Interstate 75 between the Georgia-Florida border and Exit No. 270.

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Drivers’ inhumanity toward other drivers is especially important just now because a pair of state senators — St. Petersburg Republican Jeff Brandes and Lake Worth Democrat Jeff Clemens — want to raise the speed limit to 75 mph in certain to-be-determined rural stretches of Florida’s interstates. As chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, Brandes will see to it his bill — like those that passed in four other states’ legislatures this year — gets an expansive hearing.

For the scheme to get anywhere, it’ll need help in the House of Representatives, where, so far, the Jeffs’ bill lacks a sponsor, and Speaker Will Weatherford (R-Wesley Chapel) — bumping up against term limits and with substantially larger fish to fry — controls the heat.

We’re hoping the higher limit moves forward, 70 mph being what the National Motorists Association would call an “artificially” set limit. NMA favors limits that match what traffic engineers call the “85th percentile rule,” or the speed at which free-flowing traffic moves regardless of what’s posted on signs, because, for a variety of reasons, that tends to be the safest limit. On vast stretches of Florida’s interstates, that would be at least 75 mph.

But while they’re considering the Jeffs proposal — even separate from it, in fact — legislators should readdress Florida’s lame slowpokes-in-the-passing-lane statute. As revised last spring, drivers going 10 mph below the posted limit in the left lane who fail to move over for approaching drivers face a fine (up to $60) and a three-point moving violation. This is plainly insufficient.

Because of its health, safety and economic implications, the swift, efficient movement of traffic is a key concern of the Legislature. To that end, getting dawdlers to clear the way is imperative. Lawmakers need to toughen the standards and back them up with an awareness campaign and even stiffer fines.

What kills isn’t speed. It’s differences in speed. And differences happen especially when slowpokes hog the passing lane.

The Legislature should do more to move them over. Meanwhile, be careful out there.

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