Driving below the speed limit is an act of ‘Civil Obedience’

Some years ago, I was driving on Interstate 495 in Massachusetts. The owner of the car, who shall remain nameless here, was in the passenger seat, and we were tooling along in the left lane, doing about 70 – five miles an hour over the speed limit.

Suddenly, a car came up rapidly behind us, flashing its lights. “Move over and let this guy pass,” my companion said.

“I’m going 70,” I replied.

“Yeah, but he wants to go faster,” she said. “And that’s his right.”

At this point, the smart thing to do would have been to shut up and find a gap in the adjacent lane. Instead, I said, “How do you figure it’s his right? The speed limit’s 65.”

You can be completely correct and still lose an argument. Half an hour later, I was in the passenger seat, and we were still speeding but no longer speaking.

I thought of this while attending a recent forum in Bangor on walkability, hosted by GrowSmart Maine. There was much discussion of street design, and how the visual cues along a roadway affect the speed at which drivers feel comfortable. There was also some talk about the culture of driving, and the assumptions we all make about roads and transportation.

One of the presenters at the forum was Jim Tasse, Assistant Director of the Bicycle Coalition of Maine. “You all drive too fast,” he said. “I do, too. The roads encourage us to drive too fast.”

Most of the people in attendance were car owners and regular drivers. Tasse encouraged them to obey the speed limit – even drive three to five miles an hour under the speed limit – as an act of “civil obedience.”

I’ve always believed in obeying the spirit rather than the letter of the law. It’s why I roll through stop signs on my bicycle when it’s safe to do so, and why drivers don’t think they’re breaking the law when they’re going five miles an hour over the speed limit. But speed limits are maximums, not minimums. Nobody has the “right” to drive any faster.

A bicyclist does, however, have the right to “control the lane” at an intersection, forcing the cars behind him to slow down for the few seconds it takes to get safely through. In practice, however, bicyclists who execute this perfectly legal maneuver are often subjected to horn honking, verbal abuse and dangerous driver behavior.

How did we get to the point where bicyclists behaving legally are berated, while drivers are almost expected to exceed the posted speed limits? Why do otherwise reasonable people believe that drivers have a “right” to go as fast as they want, or at least as fast as they can get away with?

Many of the presentations at the GrowSmart forum touched on “traffic calming” measures. Some of these measures include planting trees along roadsides, adding pedestrian islands in the center of a road, and reducing the number of car lanes in favor of wider sidewalks and marked bicycle lanes. These are all worthwhile. But the most needed change is a cultural one.

Drivers need to get the message that it’s not okay to speed, especially in populated areas. A pedestrian struck at 20 miles per hour has a 90 percent chance of survival. At 40 mph, that chance diminishes to 10 percent. Pedestrian deaths are up across Maine, and the Department of Transportation has noticed. We will likely see more traffic calming road design, like Bangor’s recently revamped upper Main Street, in the near future.

This is also justification for more and better bike lanes. Bicyclists make the roads safer for everyone. The more bicyclists there are, the more drivers must notice them and accommodate them, which causes drivers to drive more slowly. Bicyclists are human traffic calming. And every bicyclist on the road equals one less car.

The next time I’m behind the wheel, I’m going to take Tasse up on his suggestion, and drive three miles an hour below the speed limit, though I expect to feel, in his words, “the psychic pressure wave of irritation from the driver behind you.” But as another presenter at the GrowSmart forum pointed out, there is a difference between speed and mobility.

Communities and economies thrive when they have a healthy mix of transportation options, including walking, bicycling, and public transit. It’s challenging to convince people of this after decades of car-first policy. It will take time. But most important changes do.

 

You can drive around the block, but not around the world

Although he died in 1994, Bernard Moitessier keeps popping up in my life.

For those who care about such things, Moitessier is famous for participating in, and then withdrawing from, the 1968-69 Golden Globe Race, the first solo sailing race around the world. The rules were simple: Leave from England, sail south and then east around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, Australia’s Cape Leeuwin, South America’s Cape Horn, and back up the Atlantic to England – without stopping and without assistance.

Moitessier did not simply withdraw. He rounded Cape Horn with an excellent chance of winning. But instead of aiming his boat toward England, he kept going, detouring long enough to slingshot a message onto a boat in Cape Town harbor that he was abandoning the race “because I am happy at sea and perhaps to save my soul.” He finally dropped anchor at Tahiti, after sailing alone nonstop one and a half times around the world, a total distance of more than 37,000 miles.

I first encountered Moitessier in a book about the race by Peter Nichols titled A Voyage for Madmen, published in 2001. Earlier this year, while browsing at the Bangor Public Library for something to read, I picked up a novel about a fictional sailing family: Before the Wind, by Jim Lynch. The family’s two sons are named Bernard and Joshua, after Moitessier and Joshua Slocum. But it is the daughter, Ruby, who is the preternaturally gifted sailor, and who breaks her father’s heart by pulling a Moitessier in a local race, purposely failing to finish. It’s a good novel, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in boats and the sea.

The April 2017 edition of Cruising World magazine, which I picked up in a waiting room this summer, mentions Moitessier in an article on Cape Horn. I had never read The Long Way, Moitessier’s book about the Golden Globe Race, until I spotted a copy at the Rockland Yacht Club a few weeks later, lying in wait for me to borrow.

Moitessier was born in Hanoi in 1925 to French parents, and spent much of his youth crewing on Chinese junks all over Southeast Asia. He was something of a mystic, and he lived life on his own terms. During his months alone at sea, he often fabricated conversations between himself and some unnamed devil’s advocate presence, perhaps another part of his consciousness. Some of these conversations appear in the pages of his book, including this one:

“Yet it is thanks to the modern world that you have a good boat with winches, Tergal sails, and a solid metal hull that doesn’t give you any worries.”

 “That’s true, but it is because of the modern world, because of its so-called ‘civilization’ and its so-called ‘progress’ that I take off with my beautiful boat.”

“If we listened to people like you, more or less vagabonds and barefoot tramps, we would not have got beyond the bicycle.”

“That’s just it; we would ride bikes in the cities, there wouldn’t be these thousands of cars with hard, closed people all alone in them, we would see youngsters arm in arm, hear laughter and singing, see nice things in people’s faces; joy and love would be reborn everywhere, birds would return to the few trees left in our streets and we would replant the trees the Monster killed. Then we would feel real shadows and real colors and real sounds; our cities would get their souls back, and people too.”

Moitessier wrote these words in 1969 – before the first Earth Day, before the Arab Oil Embargo, before drive-through ATMs and drive-by shootings. How prophetic they seem now. As Houston flooded and bumper-to-bumper traffic crept northward out of Florida, one could not help but wonder if things could have been different. Had we not been busy for the past five decades paving over wetlands and building freeways and burning fossil fuels without a thought to the impact on the ecosystem, perhaps Harvey and Irma would have been smaller and less devastating.

And perhaps if a significant number of us bicycled in our cities and lived closer to our workplaces, we would be less frazzled and fractious in our dealings with one another, less inclined to assume the worst about those with whom we disagree, and more appreciative of the daily wonders our planet provides for us, despite our abuses.

It makes one wonder: Who are the real madmen?