Rules of the Road


As a kid, lengthy vacation jaunts in the family car often included the License Plate Game (how many different states can you spot?), or the Car Game (count the makes and models as they whiz by). For some reason I've lost interest in those games, but covering 1,250 miles in the Northeast recently I found myself playing the Smart & Dumb Game.

By far the smartest thing I ran across was in New Jersey where, about a half-mile before each highway exit with a filling station, there are signs announcing the price of gas. Brilliant! Motorists know without wandering off the highway whether gas is competitively priced, or a form of highway robbery. Every state should have a law requiring such signs.

But then Jersey also wins one of the dumb prizes for forbidding motorists from pumping their own gas. Oregon is the only other state with such a law. They say it has something to do with protecting the jobs of professional gas-pumpers, which is nice, but it's not as if these folks check the oil or clean windshields. What they seem best positioned to do in New Jersey is collect tips.

Many states have installed electric signs along highways to warn of delays and detours. One of the dumbest I encountered was on the Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge, heading into New York. The sign said there were "major" delays on the bridge, and advised the use of "local roads." I may have missed something on MapQuest, but I don't believe there are any "local" roads crossing the Hudson; the sign might as well have said, "park and take a ferry."

You don't see many motorists chattering on cell phones as they careen down the highways in New York, New Jersey or Connecticut, thanks to smart lawmakers. But nationwide, only five states have banned handheld cell-phoning by drivers, the other two being California and Washington. And in Washington it's only a "secondary" offense, meaning a cop can't pull you over unless you're doing something else illegal, like going 110 mph - in which case, to paraphrase the late George Carlin, "I wouldn't sweat the cell phone."

It's difficult to fathom how some states, like Maryland for example, insist on protecting drivers by requiring them to wear seat belts, yet place the rest of us at risk by allowing those same drivers to yak on cell phones while speeding in our direction.

And talk about super-dumb: although New York is one of the few states banning handheld cell use, it still has not enacted a law prohibiting text messaging while driving.

If you're crazy enough to ride a motorcycle without a helmet, you're welcome to do it in Rhode Island and Connecticut, but you have to put one on when you cross into New York and New Jersey. You can remove it again in Pennsylvania and Delaware.

New Hampshire, the "Live Free or Die" state, doesn't have a lot of pesky laws to cramp drivers' styles - no helmet law, no cell phone law, no seat belt law for adults. What New Hampshire does have is a lot of state-run liquor stores, conveniently located right on the state-operated highways.

As I headed back south, I noticed that the Jersey Turnpike has a really smart system of separating trucks and cars - not just in different lanes, but in entirely separate roadways that run side by side (it's the least they can do to earn the whopping toll, which comes to $9.95 if you drive the full Pike). But just when you're making great time, the two Turnpikes abruptly merge and the resulting delay as cars tangle with 18-wheelers eats up all the time you've saved.

Of course, some of the dumbest things on my road trip were my own fault. For instance, I had a hard time figuring out exactly what MapQuest expected me to do when the directions said make a "slight right," or a "U-turn" where signs indicated none was allowed.

But I'm smart enough to know I'm as dumb as a door nail when it comes to finding my way on highways. I'm not sure that excuse works as well for state lawmakers.

© Peter Funt. This column first appeared in The Monterey Herald.

Index of Previous Columns