What's the hurry?

05/20/2007 12:00 AM

02/15/2015 12:02 PM

Three days a week, Tiffany Bensen plays raceway roulette, threading her aging Honda through the metallic rapids of rush hour that roar between her home in Durham and her job at N.C. State.

As she motors down the Durham Freeway and Interstate 40, cars flash past on her left and right, always moving far faster than the speed limit and her 22-year-old auto, a tired piece of iron with no air bags and more than 240,000 miles on the odometer.

From her precarious perch, she sees all the hallmarks of Triangle drivers gone bad -- sudden lane changes, drivers yakking on cell phones, tailgating galore. All done at a velocity that makes the posted speed limit a rank irrelevancy.

And that's just what passes for normal behavior on Triangle freeways. At least twice a week, Bensen says, she sees an utterly rogue motorist, rocketing past the pack, evading gridlock by riding on the shoulders or bullying slower cars with a staccato blip of the high beams and a razor-close ride near the rear bumper.

"Those people are risking my life, and they just have no clue," the 41-year-old research entomologist said. "They're really selfish and ignorant and don't understand the consequences if something goes wrong at that speed."

Bensen asks a simple question and provides her own answer: "Is there a speed limit or is there not? Apparently, there is not." And that begs another question: What's the big rush?

Americans have felt the need for speed ever since Barney Oldfield raced his first Ford in 1902.

It's a passion fed by the thunderous popularity of NASCAR and the ceaseless marketing of automakers who push the 0-to-60 mph times of their latest models. Think Mazda and that kid whispering: "Zoom-zoom." Think Tony, Junior and Jeff going three wide at Talladega. Think of a hard-core race fan doing some too-close drafting in the fast lane of I-40.

"We are hard-wired for speed, and the technology we have makes that more appealing and possible," said Kenneth Mills, a Chapel Hill psychologist and author of "Disciplined Attention: How to Improve Your Visual Attention When You Drive."

Speed is the brutish side of the car as status symbol, an aggressive form of cool that crosses the generational divide. It's Steve McQueen, his dark-green '68 Mustang fastback and the car chase in "Bullitt." It's McQueen brought back from the dead two years ago in a Ford commercial that hawked the retro styling of its redesigned pony car.

Fast driving is also a byproduct of modern lives crammed to the nanosecond with the demands of home and office, church and school -- and spouses, kids and bosses. And in a nick-of-time world of faster computers and instant messaging, ever more rapid road velocity seems like another way of having it all -- right now, speed limit be hanged.

"People just are in a hurry to get to where they're going, and speed limits are just getting in the way of getting there," said Glen Gray, a Hillsborough lawyer who was once one of the Triangle's top ticket-fixers. "It's just part of our society now. Everybody has just got so much going on, so many places to be in a given day, that speeding just happens."

No stigma for speeders

Owning seven businesses, including a car wash and several restaurants in Benson, makes Hank Austin Barnes a man in a perpetual rush. It also means he has racked up 19 speeding tickets in the past five years -- almost all of them dismissed or changed to less serious charges, court records show.

"It's the way I'm natured -- I'm hyper," said Barnes, 56, of Angier. "I think I've got to be somewhere at a certain time when I don't. ... I just don't use my head."

For some, driving fast is an attainable pleasure thanks to technology that makes high performance available even in the most staid family sedan.

Turbo-charged horsepower, anti-lock brakes and air bags make higher speeds feel safe and make even average drivers feel more skillful. Some feel invincible, exempt from the reality of a top-velocity car wreck.

For others, fast moving is a sign of self-importance -- speed limits are for the Great Unwashed, not a Master of the Universe piloting a BMW Z4 roadster. It's arrogance, selfishness and America's flood tide of incivility wrapped in a ton or more of steel, plastic and chrome.

When those blue lights start to strobe, drivers rarely take responsibility, Gray said. They offer excuses -- from the trooper nabbing the wrong driver to the need for an emergency bathroom break.

"It's few who will call and say it was just their dumb fault and can I help them out," he said.

Speeding is also one of the last expressions of outlaw behavior that hasn't been heavily sanctioned by a society bent on banning smoking, recreational drugs and hard drinking. A growing number of entrepreneurs cater to this outlaw culture, hawking radar detectors and special sprays and license-plate covers designed to foil the automatic eye of the traffic camera.

All of this seems to be causing Americans to stomp harder on the accelerator, highway safety experts and state troopers say. A decade or two ago, most motorists seemed content to travel about 10 mph above the speed limit; now that cushion seems to be 15-to-20 mph above the posted maximum. More motorists are riding road rockets that can outrun the fastest interceptors in the state Highway Patrol fleet.

It's still against the law to break the speed limit in North Carolina, but few people get punished. Only folks too poor to afford a lawyer and those who don't know there are deals for the asking take the full weight of a speeding ticket.

And with faster cars and busier lives, more drivers regard a ticket as an everyday cost of modern life -- not a rebuke for breaking the law.

"We're just a nuisance. It's 'give me my ticket and let me be on my way, I'm busy.' You pull someone over doing 100 and they just say, 'OK, you caught me. I'll just call my attorney,' " said Trooper Mike Dorsey, who patrols out of Johnston County. "Until the courts start sinking their teeth into folks, people aren't going to pay attention to the speed limit."

Good speed vs. bad speed

All speeders aren't created equal, highway safety experts say. They draw a line between the pathological speeder and the pack that busts the limit without exhibiting other risky behavior.

"There's breaking the speed limit, and there's speeding -- those are two different things," said Leon James, a University of Hawaii psychology professor who studies road rage and aggressive driving.

Speed alone is not the root of all road evil, said James, who goes by the nickname "Dr. Driving." Instead of focusing solely on velocity, he advocates tougher enforcement against all forms of aggressive driving -- from tailgating and speeding well beyond the pace of the pack to stubborn slowness, particularly the obstinate "left-lane bandit" who refuses to yield to faster traffic.

There is increasing evidence that aggressive driving may be reaching a par with drunk driving as a cause of car wrecks, said Mills, the Chapel Hill psychologist who teaches troopers, truckers and other highway professionals the habits of alert driving.

Mills also says even well-behaved drivers blind themselves to the dangers of speed. He even has a term for it: "carcooning."

"They see themselves as encased in 6,000 pounds of steel in an SUV where nothing bad can happen to them, ..." he said. "They have an overconfidence and an inflated estimate of their own driving skills."

In a split second on the highway, this fantasy can be crushed by the hard laws of physics and physiology, said Dave Haase, a physics professor at N.C. State.

Lead-footed soccer moms forget that the potential damage in a car wreck increases exponentially with speed -- it's four times as great at 60 mph as it is at 30 mph. And there's a paltry return for the added risk -- an earlier arrival of only a minute or two.

Tailgaters forget simple body mechanics such as reaction time. It takes between 2/10ths and 3/10ths of a second for the body to respond to what it sees. At 60 mph, a car travels three times its length in 3/10ths of a second.

But those who feel the need for rapid movement don't answer to the laws of nature. Just ask Ryan Robinson, who works with a different kind of speed addict.

Robinson owns Ryan's Performance Machines, a Garner shop that specializes in souping up late-model American cars. He says his customers drop anywhere from a few hundred bucks to $20,000 on their rides.

"It's just in their blood, I guess," he said. "It's the adrenaline rush. People want to be faster than the other guy."

Not Bensen. She tries to keep the speedometer pegged at 70 mph. She fears going faster but knows she's a hazard for the zippier cars.

"Everyone passes me," she said. "It just amazes me that people drive as fast as they do here."

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