What happens when you drive the speed limit?

9:53 PM, May 12, 2006   |    comments
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The dictionary will tell you a "limit" is defined as a boundary. To many drivers it's a lower boundary. To the law it's an upper boundary. "It's not a speed average, it's not a speed minimum, it's not a speed that 'I can do 6 or 7 more than,' it's a limit," says Captain Don Fraser of the Minnesota State Patrol. That statement made us wonder, what happens when you do drive the speed limit? We decided to give it a try using one car, equipped with five different cameras. A sixth camera hovered above in Sky 11 as we drove the speed limit on metro roads. It was quickly clear, we were in the minority. At times our car seemed more like a stone in a streaming river. Tailgating was the most common problem. Within an hour a car with an adult and kids was on our tail on Highway 100 north, where the speed limit is 55 mph. Even though there was room to pass in the left lane, the driver hung close for about 45 seconds before finally moving to the right lane. We showed video of the incident and others to Dave Decker, a psychologist who focuses on driving issues. "Was the attention someplace else?" he asks. "Was she thinking about something else? Was she doing something else? And was she not realizing, I'm getting really close to this car in front of me?" In a couple other instances, semis tailgated our vehicle. One even honked its horn at us, even though there was room to pass on the left. "That can be real scary having a mountain following you," Decker says. He feels longer drive times and growing congestion can often frustrate drivers, sparking faster, riskier behavior. In one instance a gold car merged behind us on Highway 100. Our lane was going about 50 miles an hour in a 55 mph zone thanks to some congestion. So the gold car merged into the faster left lane, which aggravated the truck coming from behind. The driver of the truck sounded his horn to let his feelings be known. Of course, few things aggravate a driver more than getting behind a car that's driving the speed limit in the left lane. "One of the things that is incredibly frustrating to many drivers is when you have two cars going at exactly the same speed in two lanes, so they can't get by in either lane," Decker says. We tried passing a car in the left lane by going 5 miles an hour above the speed limit, but that was apparently not fast enough. Before long we were leading a seven-car chain on Interstate 494. Kathleen Harder, a cognitive psychologist and researcher at the University of Minnesota, says our footage captured normal driving behavior. "Nothing egregious," she says. She knows most drivers don't follow the speed limit and the reason is pretty simple: "If you ask why people speed, I'd say it's because they can," Harder says. Drivers know law enforcement can only pull over so many speeders. "Part of the issue is there just isn't enough law enforcement," Decker says. "People don't think they're going to get caught. And they're often surprised when they do get caught." The State Patrol says it's trying to rearrange that attitude one person at a time. Last fall Minnesota started HEAT (highway enforcement of aggressive traffic). It's a $2.5 million federally funded program that puts more troopers on the road to focus on violations like speeding. Minnesota State Highway Page on Traffic Stats "The enhanced enforcement does seem to be making a difference," says Harder, who is studying HEAT's effectiveness. Statistics from the first six months show the number of vehicles traveling over 70 miles an hour has dropped 17 percent on Interstate 94 around Minneapolis, 29 percent on I-35W just north of downtown Minneapolis and 48 percent on Highway 100. In that time state law enforcement agencies wrote 7,586 speed citations. "People need to understand, the limit is the limit," says Capt. Fraser, adding that troopers are not just getting the super speeders. Thanks to HEAT they're able to pull over the little guys, too. "And they're going, 'Well I was only going 6 or 7 over. You can't ticket me for that,'" Fraser says. "Oh yes I can, and with an attitude like that, oh yes I will." Traffic experts say when drivers going the speed limit share the roads with drivers going well above the limit, accidents are more likely to happen. In an ideal world, all drivers would go about the same speed. HEAT is trying to make that happen. When HEAT started last fall, the Minnesota Department of Transportation actually raised the speed limits on parts of I-94, 35W and Highway 100. The goal is to speed up drivers who follow the limit, while using enforcement to slow down everyone else. Hopefully, they meet somewhere in the middle, safety advocates say. HEAT is a year-long program that will end this fall. By Joe Fryer, KARE 11 News
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(Copyright 2006 by KARE 11. All Rights Reserved.)

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