Saturday, July 12, 2008

Westerners face double-nickel speed limits

"Mandatory" is a despised term in Wyoming, especially when it's applied to our vehicles. Mandatory seat-belt use. Mandatory non-use of alcoholic beverages while driving. The imposition of mandatory fuel-efficiency standards which could change the design and utility of our monstrous pick-ups.

The worst is about to come: mandatory 55-m.p.h speed limits. That's the latest buzz from Washington, D.C., as Sen. John Warner of Virginia has plans for a national 55 m.p.h speed limit. We had one once, remember, back in the 1970s. Motorists accepted it then because Middle East oil sheiks had us by the short hairs. Wonder if they'll accept it now, when once again Middle East oil sheiks have us by the short hairs and our G.I.s are dying because of it.

I was surprised to read in an article this morning by Dave Montgomery of McClatchy Newspapers that the U.S. Trucking Association is behind a national speed limit of 65. The USTA represents 3.5 million truck drivers and 37,000 trucking companies. The USTA contends that a 10 m.p.h. reduction in the speed limit would reduce fuel consumption by 27 percent. The article does not mention that 65 is already the top speed you can drive in many states. Not in the West, though.

Westerners are used to driving long distances for work and pleasure. Fuel prices have hit us hard, yet we still have these miles to cover and only so much time to do it. My trips from Cheyenne to Casper (180 miles) via I-25 take from two-and-one-half to three hours each way, depending on construction, weather, and calls of nature. At 65, the drive would still be about three hours. At 55, three-and-one-half. More of my time has to be built in the traveling portion of my day and less on the meeting portion. On the plus side, I can spend more time listening to audiobooks.

I work for the State of Wyoming and we've been discussing fuel-saving measures, such as car-pooling and better coordination of meetings and conferences. Car-pooling is a foreign concept to most Wyomingites. We not only need our cars, we love them. We also like the solitude of driving alone across the wide-open spaces. Our office has a staff of 10. If four of us have to go to an event in, say, Lander, we often drive four cars. One person may have to stay longer and another has to get home early for another meeting or a child's soccer game. Another might want to stay a couple days longer for some personal time, as Lander's a pretty cool place and located near the Wind River Mountains, Sink's Canyon State Park, and the Rez.

We're going to have to change our behavior. I'm going to have to change my behavior. Some things I'm going to have to give up. Once, I traveled with a colleague to a conference in Cody, some 350 miles away. I decided to introduce my colleague to Annie Proulx's short stories in "Close Range." After meeting a slew of Annie's crazed Wyomingites behaving badly, my colleague pleaded: "Can we listen to something else?" We settled on some classic rock CDs she brought along for just such emergencies.

The state motor pool bought several Priuses, but I've not yet been able to snag one. That would be an improvement, mileage-wise, but until the entire fleet is a multi-colored melange of Japanese-made hybrids, is won't make a dent in our fuel consumption. Besides, Americans now have to get on a waiting list to buy a Prius. By 2010, Toyota will make them in the U.S., and availability should increase. What price will gas be in 2010?

Meanwhile, I'm going to have to forgo Annie Proulx for an audiobook that everyone wants to listen to. Yikes! Groupthink is another word despised by Wyomingites.

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