The Love Affair May Be Over…

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Americans’ love affair with the car may be headed for divorce court. The Pew Research Center did a study recently that says the number of people who still enjoy going for a drive has dropped from eight out of ten back in 1990 to just under seven out of ten today. Inescapable traffic – and over-the-top enforcement of “technical foul” traffic laws – are probably among the reasons why.

Traffic kills the joy of driving. What good is a 400 horsepower car when it’s difficult if not altogether impossible impossible to drive it much faster than 80 MPH?

Traffic enforcement, meanwhile, has made it feloniously illegal to drive it faster than about 80 MPH – even if it’s physically possible to do so. The repercussions are so extreme – “reckless driving” cite, the threat of jail time, loss of license, thousands of dollars in fines and legal bills – that most people quite understandably are hesitant to explore the capabilities of their vehicles. And those who are willing to take the risk inevitably pay the price – and are culled from the herd.

Result: People drive slow in cars built to go very fast – a form of torture unique to our time.

Cars have never been more powerful, capable and safe – even at very high speeds – than they are right now. The lowliest 2012 model economy car is fully capable of well over 100 MPH on top some will do 120. Middle-of-the-road family sedans like the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord have top speeds around 140 MPH – and will effortlessly cruise all day long at 100-plus MPH.

If you dare.

Anything with a V-8 – or even a V-6 – is grossly over-powered for American driving. Not for American roads, though: The Interstates were designed for very high speeds (70-75 MPH, assuming 1950s-era car technology) and so could surely handle average speeds in the range of 80-90 MPH today, assuming modern cars. But excepting a few rural areas of Texas, anything over 70-75 is illegal “speeding.” Over 80 (just one 1 MPH over) in many states is statutory reckless driving, as discussed above. They can – and sometimes do – arrest you on the spot. At the very least, you’ll be issued a serious ticket with a mandatory court appearance (no just sending in a fine) and the very real possibility of life-altering repercussions such as paying extortionate rates for your mandatory insurance coverage (so called “SR-22? coverage) that can be as high as $2,000 per year. Over the five years that thing – the record of your conviction for “reckless” driving – will be on your DMV rap sheet, you could be looking at $10,000 in insurance bills for one bust at 81 MPH. Granted, that doesn’t happen often – but the fact is, under the laws in most states, it absolutely could. Over 90 – and you can bet on it. Which means we might as well be driving cars with the capability of a circa 1985 Ford Taurus.

What we’ve got is a situation not unlike taking a fat guy to a candy store and then telling him he can’t eat anything – or if he does, he’ll be punished. The fat guy has the Hobson’s choice of sticking around to be tortured by temptation – or saying the hell with this and leaving the store.

American drivers appear to be doing more or less the same thing: They’re certainly not in love with their cars as they once were. In particular, the very young. A recent article discussed this development. Teens and young 20-somethings are less interested in cars as other-than-appliances than any generation preceding. Many of them just don’t care. They’ll buy a car, if they absolutely must. But they’re not champing at the bit to – and don’t really care much which car it is, so long as it gets them from A to B.

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Eric Peters [send him mail] is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities and Road Hogs (2011). Visit his website.

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