Life in the slow lane not too swift


The last time I got a speeding ticket, I came sailing over a bridge and through a radar trap on the interstate before a state trooper motioned me to pull over.

"What's the problem, officer?" I said.

He gave me the kind of look you'd give a roach walking across your salad.

Then, in a disgusted voice, he said: "Sixty-seven in a 55." The way you'd say: "There's a headless corpse sticking out of your trunk."

It was at this point in the proceedings that I made my big mistake.

The baby was wailing in the back seat and the other two kids were throwing bolo punches at each other, and I guess I just kind of lost it. Because I said: "Hey, I was just keeping up with traffic."

Well. The trooper didn't like that one bit. His face went beet-red and his breathing suddenly came in shallow, angry bursts -- yi! yi! yi! -- like a Pekingese with a head cold.

"The . . . speed . . . limit . . . is . . . 55," he said with barely controlled fury.

Then he ripped the ticket from his book, handed it to me, and stomped back to his car.

So my advice is, if you get pulled over for speeding, don't ever tell the cop you were just keeping up with traffic. They don't seem to go for that one at all.

The fact is, though, that anyone who actually does 55 on an interstate highway is taking his life in his hands.

As a little experiment, I decided to drive precisely at the speed limit on I-95 between Baltimore and Delaware, one of the nation's busiest stretches of highway.

I also kept a tape-recorded journal of the entire terrifying ride:

9:30 a.m. -- Here we go. My palms are sweating and I'm feeling nauseous. But you know what? It's a good kind of nauseous. As we merge into the far right-hand lane and accelerate to 55, I brace myself for the inevitable squeal of brakes locking up behind me.

9:34 -- Well, that didn't take long. A white Chevy Citation has just roared up and is now sitting 18 inches from my rear bumper. The driver, swarthy and goateed, looks like he's just returned from the "America's Most Wanted" studios. Finally, he passes me and shoots the requisite dirty look. Hey, pal, speed limit's 55.

Why do I feel like the fourth-grader who shoots his hand in the air after the final bell and says: "Mrs. Fanutti, aren't you going to give us homework?"

9:41 -- This is it: My first brush with a wild-eyed, amphetamine-crazed trucker. An 18-wheeler has just roared up, the driver down-shifting furiously to avoid slamming into me and igniting a fiery inferno visible in Vermont. He sits on my tail for a minute, then bangs the gears furiously and passes me. Is this what they mean by a near-death experience?

9:53 -- You know what cracks me up? Those warning signs that say: Speed monitored by aircraft. Have you ever once seen a police Cessna overhead with a cop yelling into a bullhorn: You in the brown Toyota -- "PULL OVER!?"

I don't think so. Not that a solid citizen like myself has anything to worry about.

10:10 -- Uh-oh, a state trooper is behind me now. You talk about acting suspicious -- he probably thinks I'm just back from Miami with 10 kilos of cocaine and a crate of assault rifles. Who else does 55 these days but drug dealers and gun runners? OK, my wife, but that's about it.

I'm nervous, although God knows why. If the cop pulls me over and searches the car, all he'll find is $40 worth of Fisher-Price toys. Go ahead, flat-foot. Hit the lights. Make my day.

,3 10:33 -- Tell me something: Did they change the motor vehicle statutes? Is the right lane only for mass murderers now? Ted Bundy look-alike in black Camaro is tailgating me now. Probably jotting down my license plate number so he can track me down next time he warms up the chain saw.

10:50 -- Just crossed the border into Delaware. The warning signs here say: Speeders will be executed and buried in shallow graves. Hoo, boy. The folks up here might be taking this whole highway safety thing a lit-tle too seriously. Might be time to think about decaf in the morning, too.

10:53 -- Another 18-wheeler just roared up. This guy's a little cranky; probably hasn't slept since the Carter Administration. He keeps flashing his lights, finally swerves around me at 70 mph, cutting off a mini-van loaded with priests. That's a one-way ticket to the eternal flames, buddy.

11:00 -- That's it, I've had it. My nerves are shot. Every time somebody passes me, I'm ducking involuntarily to avoid gunshots. Time to step heavy on the gas pedal and join the rest of society.

It may not be legal, but it's a hell of a lot safer.

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