If Only They’d Move Over

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

Moving over to allow faster-moving traffic to get by is a wonderful concept.But I’d take it a step farther: If you’re not passing, you should not be in the left lane at all.

That, at any rate, is the way it’s done in Germany. There is a reason why. It is called closing speed. If a Porsche turbo doing 140 is bearing down on a Fiat 500 doing 70, the Fiat driver had better notice the headlights getting much larger, much faster in his rearview — and get out of the way in time.

Which he usually does. Which is why the German Autobahn is a safer place — without speed limits — than U.S. highways are with speed limits.

German drivers are taught to use the passing lane only to pass. They don’t set the cruise control and zone out or gabble on their cell phones like so many American drivers unfortunately do. Instead, they use their rearview and side mirrors so that they are always aware of the ebb and flow of traffic around them. They anticipate the need to yield to a faster-moving vehicle such that the faster moving vehicle’s driver does not have to abruptly slow then maneuver to get around a dawdler. Traffic thus flows. And, high-speed traffic can mingle with lower-speed traffic safely.

U.S. highways (most of them) could safely support much higher speeds than are currently permitted. Even the national high of 80 MPH in a few rural areas of Texas is absurd when put into context. That context being, the designed-for speeds of the U.S. Interstate Highway System — updated to reflect the advances in vehicle design over the past 60 years.

The starting point is 70-75 MPH. That is the average, routine speed of traffic envisioned by the Interstate system’ designers … back in the late 1950s. Curves, lines-of-sight, merge areas and so on were laid out on that assumption. Implicit in this is that maximum safe speeds were considerably higher. Pre-PC, a “speed limit” was precisely that: The maximum safe speed for the typical driver in the typical car on a given stretch of road.

A speed limit was not supposed to be synonymous with average, cruising along speeds — as they are today.

At any rate, the point is that 60 years ago — when the typical car rode on balloon-sidewalled, bias-ply whitewalls, had drum brakes at all four corners, farm tractor-esque leaf spring suspensions and nothing in the way of electronic safety systems — the engineers who laid out the Interstate system deemed 70-75 MPH average speeds well within the design parameters of the road, of the cars of the era — and the average driver of the era.

The Interstate System’s designers were not speed freaks or maniacs. They were crew-cut ’50s men — responsible men, who came to their decisions and recommendations only after excruciating (and math-based) careful analysis of all the factors. And they considered 70-75 to be a reasonable, safe speed.

We’ve only recently seen speed limits go back up to about what they recommended — and posted — 60 years ago.

If you were to factor in the galloping technical advances in everything from tire design to high-capacity four-wheel-disc brakes with ABS and passenger cabins built to withstand impacts better than the race cars of the not-to-distant past 70-75 seems awfully slow.

If a 1958 Chrysler was deemed capable of safe operation at 70 then surely a 2014 Chrysler can handle 80 or 90 just as safely. Probably, in fact the 2014 Chrysler is safer at 80 or 90 than the 1960 Chrysler was at 70.

It’s modern drivers that can’t handle 80 or 90.

Modern drivers who don’t move over. Who squat in the left lane with the cruise control on. Who either don’t use their mirrors — or don’t care about overtaking traffic. Who consider it their American Idol watching, Football-worshipping, god-given right to park their car in the left lane, set the cruise control and ignore whatever’s going behind them.

And so, we have the problem of speed variance — and more dangerous highways than the German Autobahn.

Cars that are traveling at higher rates of speed than others isn’t a problem if slower cars defer to faster moving ones and do so pre-emptively, so that flow is maintained (and so that sudden panic braking is rarely necessary).

But when the drivers of slower-moving cars refuse to yield, they force faster-moving traffic to decelerate rapidly or take evasive action to get around them. This interrupts the flow of traffic. Cars slowing and then speeding up, jockeying for position, is what creates the safety hazard — not some cars moving at a higher rate of speed than others.

If the left lane was understood to be for passing only . .. if American drivers could be taught to reflexively defer to overtaking traffic in an anticipatory fashion rather than viewing such as a threat to their personal space and doing all in their power to impede it … then U.S. highways could dispense with speed limits entirely and people could drive as fast as folks did back in 1960, except without having to worry about getting a ticket for “speeding.”



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