In the ’80s, when most cars were slow, you could drive fast and mostly get away with it. You might get a ticket. But going to jail – or even losing your license – was something you really had to work for.
Today, cars are much more powerful – and far faster than they were back then – but we hardly dare use them for fear of extreme repercussions, legally and otherwise.
In some states, for instance, it’s an automatic “reckless driving” cite to get caught driving faster than 20 mph over the posted limit.
Or (as in Virginia) get caught driving faster than 80 MPH – anywhere.
Do either and you’re in danger of being cuffed and stuffed on the spot – and of losing your license for several months upon conviction. It will cost you thousands in fines and insurance surcharges if you lose. And thousands if you win, to pay the lawyer.
We have a major secondary road here in my area where the speed limit drops from 45 to 35 on a downhill stretch. Most traffic is already doing at least 45 because (as is common) the speed limit is set 5-10 MPH below the 85th percentile (the measured average speed of 85 percent of the cars traveling on a given stretch of road).
This turns almost every driver on the road into a “speeder.” Their rate of travel is not unsafe.
And once the limit drops by another 10 MPH it’s all to easy to find yourself saddled with a “reckless driving” ticket. This recently happened to a friend of my wife’s – who was caught on US 220 in VIrginia outside of Roanoke, Va. Four lanes lanes, two in each direction. It is a highway … with a posted speed limit of 45 MPH.
My wife’s friend got pulled for 66 MPH – automatic “reckless” driving. Cops hand them out like Jehovah’s Witnesses do their little “get saved now” cards.
And on the actual highway, it’s worse – ironically, because speed limits are more reasonable now. It’s 70-75 on many Interstates. Most cars are running about 5 over – again, because the PSL is set below the 85th percentile (which is supposed to be the basis for setting speed limits).
But the law says even 1 MPH over 80 is “reckless” – by definition. No nuance, no room for the exercise of judgment. Thus, 77 in a posted 70 MPH zone is just a run-of-the-mill speeding ticket. Pay the fine, drive on. But four miles-per-hour faster than that is “reckless” driving – and the likely loss of your driving “privileges” as well as the possible loss odf your freedom (they can and sometimes do arrest/cage you on the spot for this “crime”).
It’s ridiculous – but it’s also the reality. And it’s a reality that spoils the joy of owning something speedy.
What’s the point? Use it – even a little bit – and you’ll lose it.
It’s an automotive Catch 22 for almost every car – even family cars – to have Autobahn capability yet be restricted to what amounts to life in the slow lane. A current V6 Camry or Accord is quicker and faster than an ’80s-vintage Ferarri. Either can do 140-plus on top and 0-60 in about 6.5 seconds. This in in a country where you can’t legally or realistically drive much faster than 70-ish in most places more than a few furtive seconds without risking a potential legal and financial Ned Beatty-in-the-woods-with-the-hillbillys situation.
It is not unlike having a really hot girl show up at your doorstep in a skimpy bikini, come inside and take her to the bedroom.
But don’t you dare touch her.
I recently got to test drive the new Dodge Challenger Hellcat. It has more than 700 horsepower and will do 120 in third gear. It has an eight-speed transmission. What do you do with this? And it’s not a case of the Rare Exotic. Last week, I got a Kia minivan to test drive. It has almost 300 hp.
Eighty in a new Prius feels as boring as 60 felt in a ’70s-era Camaro Z28.
Trust me, I’ve driven both.
In the curves, it’s the same story.
Today’s middle-of-the-road family sedans have suspensions so sticky you have to take those freeway off-ramps posted at 35 at least 20 MPH over that just to begin to sample the limits. Anything less and you might as well be riding a bus – because you’re not really driving anyhow.
In a sport sedan, you will need to be really laying it down for there to be any point to the exercise.
But do that and you risk doing time, these days. No joke. A colleague from Jalopnik got clinked for doing 90 in a new Z28 – out in the middle of nowhere, Virginia.
In this way, the current horsepower /capability build-up is not unlike body-building contests: It’s mostly for show. Just as Arnold used his massive biceps for flexing, today’s Steroid Cars cars and trucks are mostly all about posing, too.
It almost makes you pine for the days of Drive 55 – when you could at least run 80-ish without ending up as an extra in your very own version of the TV show, Oz.
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