Life in The Slow Lane (In a Fast Car)

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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.slow lead

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).slow turtle

This turns almost every driver on the road into a “speeder.”  Their rate of travel is not unsafe.

Just illegal.

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.Ned Beatty images

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.

A minivan.

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.OZ pic

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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  1. I got my Acura Integra GSR up to around 130 on the morning of 9/11. I figured all the cops would be in downtown Chicago plus the interstate was wide open. Handled great.

  2. Eric, I don’t understand why you don’t leave Virginia. The problem certainly exists in other states too. But Virginia is so close to the Center of the Universe of Evil. It’s near the top of the charts in tyranny, corruption, pollution, and countless lesser outrages.

    Go West my man!

    • Yes, VA (as MD, where I live) is on the edges of Mordor on the Potomac. Our AC was not working the other day. I don’t want to say it was hot in the bedroom, but I woke up once and saw 2 short guys w/hairy feet trying to throw a ring in my bed.

    • Hi Mike,

      I’m invested – and not just money. Friends mostly live here, too. Plus, it’s barely Virginia. Rural SW Virginia has about as much in common with Northern Va. as upstate NY has with NYC!

  3. The irony of the NMSL was that you could do 70 while it was in effect. The cops knew that the 55 mph limit was bogus (you want boring? Try driving I-10 to El Paso at 55 mph).

    But once it was repealed and the signs were changed (back) to the 65/70 mph limit, suddenly there wasn’t any tolerance any more. Driving 5 over would get you paper.

    • The 55 mph speed limit was the single worst motoring law enacted to date. Today, it has a hell of a lot of competition for badness, but driving back in those days — 1974-1995 was pure hell, though it got slightly better after the 55 mph was relaxed to 65 in 1987. By the mid 1990s, 65 was a joke. People were hammering well beyond 65.

      I find the tolerances to be pretty wide in some places and narrow in others. I think that you can get away with 80 in a 70 pretty easily in most states.

  4. The 80 mph speed limit’s in Idaho mean 90 before the piggies even look at you now. In my Lexus with my V-1, it means 100.

    Fuck em. Every single porky, state servant piggy one of em.

  5. “Last week, I got a Kia minivan to test drive. It has almost 300 hp.

    A minivan.”

    I rented a Toyota Sienna last year when I took my family to SoCal(I spent some of my youth growing up there) to visit family, do Disneyland, etc.

    It had been some time since I drove in SoCal so when first pulled onto the highway after leaving LAX I put the coals to it it(3.5 v6) to merge expecting the traffic to be moving the standard 80mph+ SoCal driving experience.

    As I merged I thought to myself, “Well shit, this van moves pretty good, I’m already at moving faster than merge speed.” and once I settled down into the HOV lane I glanced down at the speedo…..100mph….and it felt like I was doing 60. The family had no idea(thankfully the wife as well).

    That thing certainly outhandled most of the sport cars I drove in the 80’s too. Unbelievable.

    • Hi Nick,


      It’d be hilarious (well, depressing) to line up six bone stock late ’60s/early ’70s muscle cars and six bones stock new cars, three of them family sedans, three of them minivans … and do a simultaneous 0-60/quarter-mile drag.

      A few of the muscle cars might win… by a couple of feet and a few tenths of a second.


      I get lots of e-hate when I write such ugly truths, but the truth is that only a handful of the old barnstormers could get to 60 in less than six seconds and most were in the sevens.

      That puts them in the same bracket as a new Camry V6 or similar.

      The wife-beater types will erupt that their SS 396 runs 12s… and I don’t doubt that is possible.

      With modifications.

      What would a modified Accord V6 be capable of?

    • 2 years ago I rented a 2013 Charger with the base V6. I took it for a test drive on US31. No wind noise, no tire noise, no noise of any kind. When I looked at the speedo, I was doing 102 mph!!!!!! At 3200 rpm. I could have driven that speed all day.

      I once had a 69 Dodge Polara (in 1979), 2B 383, auto. Had 110K miles on it . Got it up to 100 mph and the wind and tire noises were almost deafening, and the front of the car was hopping all over the road. I backed down real quick.

      • Joe, funny you should have that experience with a Charger. My wife rented a V-6 charger a couple weeks ago. She was rolling down the road and kept hearing a noise like a window was down. She caught this glinting at the bottom of the door, wondered why there’d be a light there. Then she noticed it was daylight coming around the door gasket. It did it the entire trip(sure it did, says I, ever see something fix itself?), bugged hell out of her. Of the myriad of cars she’s rented, this was the only one with a door seal issue or a wind noise problem of any sort. Didn’t get very good mileage either.

        When she got it the people said it was a 35mpg car. In a pig’s eye says me to her, not a hulk that size. It was all highway miles and she said she got 27-28mpg the entire trip. And to think they only had about 3 OD gears to get that.

        Your ’69 Volara was one of the best high speed handlers of that era via Mopar. I had friends that had everything from Chargers, Challengers, Road Runners, etc. They all handled and sounded like a Conastoga wagon at speed, downright frightening. My Malibu OTOH, was quiet and dead steady at 100mph. Between 140 and 150 the front tires barely touched the pavement.

  6. Cops absolutely suck at enforcing the speed limit. Drive on the parkway in NJ going 55mph. Or better yet, over the parkway bridge going at the posted 45mph speed limit. You risk being rear ended by cars going 80mph.

    Literally everyone speeds on the parkway.

    Speeding laws aren’t about safety. No matter what the law tells you. It is only about revenue. If it is really about safety speed limits would be 10 MPH.

  7. One thing you didn’t mention was how much safer the cars are today, even with their higher capabilities. I don’t know the breaking point but I’d guess that a crash in a 60’s Mustang going 60 mph is going to be much worse for the occupants (and anyone on the other end) than if I crashed my 2015 Mustang at 80 mph.

    Top Gear did an interesting comparison on the laws in the UK, and how the speed limits are set based on stopping distances for the worst cars out there (and are dated I’m sure). Their conclusion was that the Bentley & BMW M6 they had should be allowed to go 140 mph on the highway easily and still meet the stopping distance requirements.

    To LEOs, it’s all about $$$ now, not safety. Sure, there’s probably a “power-trip” factor in their too for some of them.

    I was a victim of sorts to what you are saying, though my situation was different. When I lived in Indiana I was helping a friend fix his motorcycle, a 2000 Yamaha R6. We just put new carbs on it and the issue it was having was it would choke at highway speeds, so when I test rode it I was on my way to the highway, when the 6-lane divided state road I was on had no traffic ahead of me, so I thought, why not save the time and just open it up here since no one is around. A cop was hiding and I didn’t see him at all. He clocked me at 77 mph in a 45 mph. Sure I’ll take that speeding ticket, whatever, but when he came out to pull me over, he saw my head move and thought I looked at him and sped up to run from him. In reality, I was checking my blind spot (had full face helmet on) to change into the center lane for maximum cushion/safety, and didn’t see him at all. He already called for backup and at the next light (only .6 miles down the road) I had a swarm of police surround me (though I was in the left turn lane waiting to turn to go back to my house). Long story long, I ended up being charged with Reckless driving and Resisting Arrest using a Motor Vehicle (which in IN, is the same Class D Felony as someone trying to punch an officer or using any other weapon to flee them…a car is considered a weapon…I know this because someone in the court I was in was charged with doing just that!) Was arrested, bike was towed, and had to wait in jail for over 30 hours before they finally let me out on bail. Anyway, $8,000 to a lawyer and 6 months later I finally got them to take my plea deal of admitting to the Reckless and they dropped the fleeing charge. Had probation to deal with and some fees. Dumb part is that they wasted so much money on their end that if they had just given me a $1000 ticket or something I’d gladly had paid that and they would have come out on top!

  8. It’s insane. 20 years after the NMSL was repealed there are still places where it is illegal to drive the legal speed of 1973 and the penalties are more severe for exceeding the arbitrary dictate. If a cop even pulled someone over on a I-294 for 81mph in 1973, then being a mere 11mph over, it would be a simple speeding ticket. Today it can be 6 months in jail. There is no comparison between 81mph in an early 70s and older car vs today’s hardware. Just another way where we are stolen from and stomped on daily.

  9. I think it depends on the state. In Texas, I believe things are a lot better for the person who would have been termed a “speeder” in the 1980’s. I lived there in the 1980s. On a typical 210 mile trip, I would run into a cop every 70 or so miles for a total of three cops, sometimes 4 or 5 between Fort Worth and Huntsville. Most could be found on Interstate 45. Back then the speed limit was 55 and then 65 mph for most of the trip. Fast forward to today, cop sightings are a lot rarer on 45. Today, the speed limit is 75 mph.

    It is true that you could hit higher peak speeds back then as the roads had about half of the traffic on them as compared with today. As a gross violator, I used to travel between 90-110 mph often, but usually between 75 and 80 to avoid a ticket. Today, I can cruise a tad under 90 with few worries. In Texas, you are allowed to take defensive driving once a year to get rid of the tickets. You might want to consider rural Texas. Our two lane roads have 75 mph limits.

    • swamp, last year the DPS issued a new rule, since they got a huge increase in pay….in more than one way, that said they would depend less on speed enforcement, blah blah blah. It rocked along a while like that and then they turned back to their old ways, even worse as far as I can tell. They use, known to them, speed zones on the edge of towns that catch you unaware, such as N of Colorado City on 208 where, in the middle of nowhere, the speed limit suddenly changes to 60 and immediately to 55 then 50. The signs are right over hills so you’re balling the jack when you encounter them. Many other places like this have more than their fair share of “enforcement”.

      While the DPS probably didn’t really want to get back into speed enforcement, I’m guessing the counties raised hell about reduced revenue so now it’s back to the same old same old. It worked out well for me once since I was in one of these zones with an illegal load(no tarp) and the DOT was out there so intent on catching speeders that he didn’t notice me as he met me running down somebody who probably didn’t even realize they were 10 or 15 over.

      I doubt few people get stopped in Tx. or at least west Tx. for 80. I never have and I’m out there a lot. Beware, there’s a notorious(now with 2 black Tahoes with Police in almost unseeable flat back)speed trap at Roscoe on I-20. Towns have decided to buy more police cars and cruise their newly extended city limits to the interstate as a revenue vehicle, no pun intended.

    • swamprat, in the 20th century in Tx. I commonly drove twice the speed limit and well above. In for a penny, in for a pound was my motto. Cincinnati Microwave literally saved me from bacon from ’80 to ’86 when instant-on radar became the norm.
      Another thing that saved me even after IO was my ride. I often drove an ‘84.5 Nissan pickup, a 4WD with big tires, tiny bed and brushguard. Can’t count the times I could have been nailed if it hadn’t been invisible. It was light blue and for some reason, maybe they thought they were getting a false reading at 95mph, what with the whole ball of wax and it had side boxes painted to match with a huge rear bumper. I once got stopped at a license check and opened my glove compartment. It was stuffed with paper of all sorts. I started digging through it for my insurance card and registration when the DPS occifer said “It’s a company vehicle isn’t it?” Sure, says I. I guess it was since it was depreciated off my taxes on the farm every year. He told me to just go on. Maybe I shoulda bought a few of them.


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