April 27, 2013
Newly inaugurated President Jimmy Carter once sat in front of a TV camera in a tan cardigan sweater with a White House fireplace blazing in the background.
He proceeded to tell Americans, including yours truly, that in the midst of an energy crisis we must change our wasteful, energy-gulping ways.
The year was 1977, and America had been buffeted by a shortage of gasoline. The shortage came from oil supply restrictions imposed by the OPEC oil-producers cartel when it controlled much more of the world’s oil than it does today.
In the mid-1970s folks here in the hometown sometimes had to wait in line to buy gas made scarce by the shortage.
Much of what Carter said in that and in subsequent speeches was pretty mild – things like turn off lights, lower the thermostat a couple of degrees in winter and put on a sweater. I could handle that. I still try to do those things.
But what hit me in the gut came early in the energy crisis when they lowered the speed limit to 55 mph across the country. That was 55 even on the broad, flat, speed-inducing interstate highways.
So they cut the speed limit on I-77 here from 70 mph. Now that was rough.
As a young buck, I’d be coming home from the Triad. I’d survived the heavy traffic there and a tedious two-lane (back then) Highway 421 in Yadkin County.
Then I’d hit the wide and mostly empty (back then) I-77, and I was ready for some elbow room and to let the horses run.
I’d get on the beautiful, new four-lane interstate highway with the wide, green median. And I’d almost need hydraulics to pull my foot off the gas pedal and not gun the V-8 Oldsmobile up to 70.
This highway’s made for 70, I told myself. I could run it safely at 80, and how am I going to hold this car to 55? I could almost feel the Oldsmobile pulling at the reins to sprint ahead.
I knew I was almost home when, on I-77 North, I would crest the Brushy Mountains and see the gorgeous Yadkin Valley laid out before me with the beautiful Blue Ridge and its prominent Sugarloaf Mountain ahead.
The beauty would distract, the gentle down slope of the interstate can speed a car up, and before you know it I’d be way beyond that tame 55 mph speed limit. I’d look down at the odometer and see 65. Woops. Turn on the hydraulics.
They started moving the speed limit back up in the late 1980s after the crisis had subsided and they determined that drivers were not saving much gas at 55.
Now comes word out of Raleigh that they want to raise the top speed limit in North Carolina to 75 mph, from 70. And our stretch of I-77 here, along with the flat interstates of the coastal plain, are prime candidates for 75.
Now I find myself wondering whether I will be able to gun it up to 75.
No longer a young buck, I’ll be on I-77 these days and glance down at the odometer and see 65 or under. Whoa, I think, why aren’t I going 70? I have to force myself to speed the car up.
I’ve found that age - both mine and the car’s - and a bad wheel balance and alignment have slowed me down. I need no hydraulics any more to pull my foot away from the gas pedal.
So it looks like I’m going to be competing on the interstate with young bucks in hot rods, beach bums in a hurry to get south, and truckers with full loads and on a tight schedule driving a stretch of I-77 that is going to resemble a long drag-race track.
By the way, the state senator who’s pushing the legislature for a 75 mph speed limit got five speeding tickets over a 10-year period ending in 1998, according to a Raleigh newspaper. When a reporter asked the senator, Neal Hunt of Raleigh, about his driving of late, Hunt chuckled, “No comment,” according to The News and Observer.
The state Department of Transportation would have the final say on 75. There’s no word on this yet from those folks.
I appreciate the opportunity to get home from a trip south a little bit quicker.
But I fear being the old, slow guy in the right lane as impatient Ohioans fleeing the beach in SUVs run up on my bumper, then pass me by with sneers on their faces.
There’s only one solution: Honey, I’ve got to get me a brand-new sports car.
I’m sure she’ll understand.
Stephen Harris returned home from Raleigh on I-77 to live in State Road.