News

I bet you think you can handle Highway 99 with no speed limit. Think I trust you? Nope

This is the morning commute traffic jam on Highway 99 on Jan. 28, 2019

A car became wedged under a big rig truck after an apparent merging collision, closing two lanes of traffic and an offramp on southbound Highway 99 on January 28, 2019.
Up Next
A car became wedged under a big rig truck after an apparent merging collision, closing two lanes of traffic and an offramp on southbound Highway 99 on January 28, 2019.

I’d trust myself, when conditions permit, to drive 100 mph on the freeway.

However, I don’t trust many of you.

Sorry for the sideswipe, but California drivers haven’t proven they can handle that speed. Not to this native son and lifelong resident. Which is why an Orange County lawmaker’s vision of a Golden State Autobahn should never leave the garage.

Introduced by State Senator John Moorlach, SB 319 calls for the construction of two additional traffic lanes in both directions of Interstate 5 and Highway 99 from the foot of the Grapevine to Stockton or possibly Sacramento. And – get this – there would be no speed limit on those new lanes.

“We are waiting decades for high-speed rail to get finished,” Moorlach told the Los Angeles Times. “Why can’t we build 300 miles of four-lane concrete in five years at a fraction of the cost, so that people aren’t backed up behind trucks to get to San Francisco on the 5?”

Moorlach’s idea is not without merit. Traffic has never been worse on I-5, which in most stretches has enough room between the northbound and southbound lanes to accommodate four more lanes without widening its footprint.

That isn’t the case with Highway 99. Unlike I-5, the Valley’s workhorse freeway (rated the most dangerous in the country) bisects numerous cities where it gets squeezed between overpasses, railroad tracks and surface roads. In these stretches, extra lanes aren’t really an option.

The bill identifies the state’s cap-and-trade fund as a money pot, and Moorlach has floated $3 billion as an initial estimate.

Here’s the problem with that: Cap-and-trade, which requires companies to purchase credits if they pollute, is designed to fund infrastructure projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Do more cars zooming up and down our freeways with gas pedals pinned to the floorboards fit that description? Unless someone can produce supporting data, I’m thinking not.

The other fatal flaw is Moorlach himself, a Republican in a legislative body in which Democrats own the supermajority. Meaning his bill is probably DOA at the committee level, if only for political spite.

traffic
Southbound traffic crawls along a Highway 99 construction zone on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2017, in Fresno. A bill by an Orange County lawmaker would add two additional lanes, with no speed limits, to both 99 and Interstate 5 in the Central Valley. SILVIA FLORES Fresno Bee file

Just for argument’s sake, let’s say politics weren’t a factor and funding was available. Adding extra freeway lanes with no maximum speed would still be a bad idea for the simple reason that Californians, by and large, are bad drivers.

Nod your head if you agree.

Let’s start with all those folks, the obstinate and the clueless, who drive 65 mph in the fast lane and refuse to budge. Which causes those of us who want to go 70, 75 or 80 to merge into the middle and slow lanes, sometimes into the tiniest of gaps, in order to get around them.

Now imagine that scenario with left-lane slugs and a bunch of wannabe Dominic Torettos. Fast, furious and probably fatal.

Distracted driving is another big issue. How many times do you pass someone driving erratically, only to see them staring into or tapping on their phone screen? Happens to me on Highway 168 almost every day.

A five-year observational survey conducted by Fresno State for the California Office of Public Safety, taken at 204 locations across 17 counties, has found distracted driving due to electronic devices might not be as prevalent as we think. The numbers hover around 5 percent – much lower if there are passengers in the car and especially children.

Still, I’d rather not take the chance any of those 5 percent is doing triple digits when I or anyone I care about is in the vicinity.

If this bill sought to add lanes to I-5 and in rural stretches of Highway 99 and place an 80 mph speed limit on them, my tone would probably be different. We certainly need the investment in our highways, though it shouldn’t be touted as an alternative to high-speed rail as Moorlach seems to be doing.

But the only way I’m going to trust California drivers with no maximum speed limits is if self-driving cars advance to the point where technology wrestles away the steering wheel.

Which hopefully happens sooner rather than later. No computer would ever drive 65 mph in the fast lane.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee

Marek Warszawski writes opinion columns on news, politics, sports and quality of life issues for The Fresno Bee, where he has worked since 1998. He is a Bay Area native, a UC Davis graduate and lifelong Sierra frolicker. He welcomes discourse with readers but does not suffer fools nor trolls.
  Comments