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Springfield, MO

Opinion: The Wild West of Missouri Highways

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Driving back home to Jefferson City from the St. Louis airport, I was stunned by the number of cars speeding past me on Interstate 70.

Some were racing well beyond the limit.

I confess that back in my younger days, I regularly went over the limit. But not at the speeds I saw on that drive home.

But now, the growing congestion on the interstates makes speeding more hazardous as drivers weave around what I call “road hogs” who stay in the left lane with no intention of passing anyone.

This chaotic highway mess at high speeds is far different from earlier decades when a Missouri Highway Patrol superintendent actually endorsed fast speed.

He was concerned that the federal government’s requirements for states to limit speeds to 55 mph as part of an energy conservation effort would lead to inattentive drivers and contribute to accidents.

Inattention from slow speeds clearly is not an issue today. Regardless of your speed, you find yourself tense from the congestion, road hogs, vast differences in speeds and the volume of trucks.

Adding to my surprise on my drive home was the near absence of any enforcement of the speed limit.

From Lambert International Airport to the Highway 54 exit at Kingdom City to Jefferson City, I do not recall my radar detector ever sounding an alarm.

Yes, even though I’ve ceased speeding, I still have a radar detector. To be honest, I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s just old-age habit.

Maybe it’s journalistic curiosity of what’s out there. After all, my thoughts for this column were prompted by my radar detector’s silence.

Missouri’s situation is quite different from my experiences driving in Europe.

At one time, highway speeding seemed to be a continental sport in Europe. No more. The days of 100 mph or faster speeding are long gone in Europe.

Western European countries aggressively enforce speed limits with automatic speed cameras.

Germany, of course, is known for its no-speed-limit highways. But that’s only for selected highways. My last speeding ticket in Europe came from an automatic camera in Germany – and it was only a few miles-per-hour over the limit.

In Europe, there’s a strong ethic that you don’t hog the left lane on multilane highways. That alone makes driving in Europe so more pleasant than in the U.S.

Here in the United States, The Associated Press reported a new publicity campaign to encourage drivers to avoid hogging the left lane. We’ll see if that has any effect. …

There is another side to this story. Traffic fatalities actually are down from a decade ago. However, there has been a steady increase in the past five years – from 768 traffic-crash fatalities reported by the Missouri Highway Patrol in 2011 to 933 fatalities in 2016.

Speeding, of course, is not the only factor with fatalities. Other factors include seat-belt use, distraction from cellphones and the growing number of near-tank-like vehicles in which survivability in a crash may be enhanced.

As for Europe’s approach, I’m not sure it fits with Missouri’s culture. For years, there’s been stiff legislative opposition to tougher driving requirements. Just remember the years of opposition to tougher seat belt enforcement and to automatic cameras to catch red-light violators.

Phill Brooks is director of the Missouri School of Journalism’s State Government Reporting Program. He has been a statehouse reporter since 1970, making him the dean of the Missouri statehouse press corps, and he manages the multimedia website on state government news, MDN.org. Brooks can be reached atcolumn@mdn.org.

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