Why a California Lawmaker Is Proposing Highways With No Speed Limit
Why a California Lawmaker Is Proposing Highways With No Speed Limit
California State Senator John M. W. Moorlach wants to expand two highways in his districts with no-speed-limit lanes. We spoke with him to learn more about this crazy-sounding proposal.
BY BOB SOROKANICH
FEB 20, 2019
This week, a California lawmaker made national headlines with his proposal to expand two highways in his district. The expansion itself seems pretty straightforward—adding two northbound and two southbound lanes to Interstate Route 5 and State Route 99, routes that connect Los Angeles to the Bay Area. It's this part that raised eyebrows: The added lanes would have no posted speed limit.
Senate Bill 319 was introduced by California State Senator John M. W. Moorlach, the Republican representing California's 37th senate district covering most of Orange County. The idea of a no-limit highway—and the proposal's assertion that such a stretch of road could somehow reduce greenhouse gas emissions—certainly piqued our interests. So we reached Sen. Moorlach by phone to find out just what he had in mind with this proposal for an American autobahn. It turns out the Senator is a bit of a gearhead himself: He drives a 1996 Chevy Impala SS, his wife's daily driver is a 1990 Avanti touring sedan, and he's got a 1974 Bricklin SV-1 in the garage waiting to become a retirement project.
Below is our conversation, lightly edited for clarity.
Road & Track: How did you come up with this idea?
Sen. Moorlach: A couple things. One, obviously, a need for more lanes. Two, the idea that an autobahn model would certainly be an interesting opportunity for California if we’re talking about high speed. Thirdly, we just have such a wonderful car culture here, we have so many vehicles that really don’t get to be exercised like they might be, say, in Europe.
R&T: One thing you pointed out both in your proposal and in a press release, is that Germany has fewer road traffic deaths per capita than the United States. How do you think removing the speed limit will affect highway safety in California?
Sen. Moorlach: I guess it just goes to the statistics. You’ve been on the autobahn, so thank you very much for understanding. A lot of media representatives just don’t have a clue of what that is. Their first reaction is, this is so unsafe. Yet on a good Sunday morning everybody’s driving 80 mph on the 405 San Diego Freeway in my district. So what’s another 10 mph? I had a radio host yesterday say, my goodness, on Sunday morning, I realized I was doing 94 on a local freeway because it was empty. We have vehicles that can accommodate these speeds, and now you just have to be very aware of what you’re doing. You don’t text. You don’t goof off. You pay attention, and when someone comes up behind you and blinks their lights you just politely move over to the slower lane. It’s not a difficult procedure, but I think for those that appreciate the ability to enjoy a car, they should find that traffic accidents would decline.
R&T: But a huge part of Germany's road safety comes down to driver training. To get a driver's license in Germany, you have to go through something like 40 hours of training, with multiple exams. It's extremely stringent, it takes a lot of time, and it ends up costing the equivalent of a few thousand dollars. Would you want to make California driving laws stricter, or driver training more thorough, along with removing these speed limits?
Sen. Moorlach: That’s an interesting question and I don’t have a hard and fast answer because you’re the first to ask that one. I don’t know if I’m ready to go there, but obviously we need to elevate the discussion [….] Here in California, our department of transportation, CalTrans, has these big signs with messages. And very often the message will be “slower traffic move to the right lanes.” And even that’s a concept that doesn’t seem to make sense to people. So many of us are frustrated when we’re behind someone driving very slow in the fast lane. I don’t know if I would want to get into […] the kind of training that you’re talking about in Germany. But here in California we have different classes of licenses. Class A would allow you to drive a van that would transport kids if you’re a youth group leader, or the boys club. I could see maybe a different class structure as a way to enable this idea.
R&T: Have you ever driven on the German autobahn?
Sen. Moorlach: I have, as a child, but I’ve also driven in northern Europe, the last time was in ’98. It’s quite a fascinating experience.
R&T: On the unlimited parts of the autobahn, you'd think it would be chaos, and it's not. It's the most orderly driving I've ever experienced.
Sen. Moorlach: They understand driving etiquette. They don’t understand that here in California.
R&T: Would certain types of vehicles be prohibited from the no-speed-limit lanes? Semis, buses, vehicles towing trailers?
Sen. Moorlach: The question that keeps coming up is, would there be a minimum speed. Since the bill is silent, maybe we amend it to say there’s got to be some kind of minimum speed. Obviously it would not be a good idea to be towing a boat or something of that nature. That’s why we’re proposing to add the lanes, so you could go ahead and accommodate vehicles that would move at 80 mph average or higher. The semis would stay in the existing two lanes. We would have to see whether or not we could have some kind of restrictions. We’ll just have to flesh that out.
R&T: In the proposal, you justify removing the speed limit by claiming that doing so would reduce vehicle emissions. Do you have any research or data that backs up that claim?
Sen. Moorlach: Not at my fingertips. We’re making the assumption that if you’re stuck not moving, and you’re idling, then your vehicle’s not really efficiently burning the fuel if you’re using fossil fuels. If you’re moving at a higher speed you’re burning your fossil fuels in a much cleaner manner. That’s intuitive, but do I have hard science? No. I know that Germany is having a tough time reducing their greenhouse gases, but all of their lanes in certain areas are high speed. I don’t have anything solid, but we’re working on it.
R&T: Part of why I ask is because the German government recently proposed putting a speed limit on the entire autobahn, precisely because they're having trouble meeting their emissions-reduction targets. They found that a nationwide 75 mph highway limit would accomplish 1/5th of their emissions reduction goal. It seems odd to propose the opposite, that removing the speed limit would somehow improve emissions. Am I missing something?
Sen. Moorlach: No, you’re not missing anything. In fact, we wrote the bill and submitted it before that study came out. So when the study came out, I went, doggone it. So, we have to do a little more research, and we’ll see. This state is so focused on greenhouse gases and climate change that when we wrote the bill, that was one of the arguments that we could make to use what we call cap-and-trade funding. We’ll have to keep working on our research.
R&T: Not to be blunt, but does this proposal have any chance of success? I have to imagine there will be opposition from a number of groups.
Sen. Moorlach: We’re finding that, since the media announced that I submitted the bill, the public opinion is about 50-50. Half the people are scared to death to drive fast, the other half are going, yes, give me that opportunity. The issue is not so much that we talk about whether or not there’s a speed limit, but doggone it, why don’t we have at least four more lanes up and down the state as a bridge before you start waiting 15 years for high speed rail. Only two percent of the population in California even gets into a train, and those numbers are declining. We’re saying, let’s do something on these north-south corridors if it is so critical to move people between the Bay Area and LA. So even if we said, let’s have speed limits, we’d still add lanes. Because right now, when you drive the 5 freeway in the Central Valley, one of my pet peeves is, I see a truck in the slow lane, and I’m ready to go around them. There are only two lanes on the 5. And when I’m ready to go around that truck, that truck proceeds to move over into the fast lane to pass another truck. And it takes five, ten minutes for that truck to pass another truck. I know it bothers me, I talk to a lot of others that it bothers. We’re finding that it creates a certain amount of road rage as well, because then people start driving faster to get up to the next group of trucks. We’re finding also that, as we’re dealing with members of the media, the 99, which is the other north-south corridor, is probably rated one of the more dangerous if not the most dangerous road in California. And it could be just due to the fact that it’s got minimum lanes and massive cargo transportation going on it.
R&T: If you had to compromise, would you take more lanes if it meant abandoning the no-speed-limit zones?
Sen. Moorlach: Yep.
R&T: How would the no-speed-limit zones affect the Highway Patrol's ability to enforce traffic laws?
Sen. Moorlach: If you’re not going to be cited for speed, the CHP still has the other four lanes from which to generate revenue. There’s the 91 freeway in Orange County which has four lanes in the middle of it which are toll lanes. Those are completely monitored by cameras, and we have a control center where people are watching all the screens. You would actually have staff that would monitor how driving is occurring […] I would sense that everyone’s gonna be driving at a safe level because their goal is not to break the sound barrier, their goal is to get to the destination. They’re not gonna jeopardize their lives, or the lives of their passengers, in these proposed lanes. But if they aren’t paying attention or something does happen, we would at least have individuals monitoring, and seeing if maybe a car has, let’s say, spun out. Then we would have tow trucks, like we have in Orange County, that would respond within minutes because you don’t want to have anyone blocking those lanes, you want to get everybody off. So I would think that we could use the technology that’s already in place to make sure that those that utilize lanes of that nature would be smart, would have the right etiquette, and would be paying attention.
R&T: What's the next step for this proposal?
Sen. Moorlach: In the state legislature of California, after you introduce a bill, you have to wait 30 days before it can be referred to a committee. I would expect a month to go by, and then it might go to transportation committee. It might be referred to more committees, maybe even environmental committee since we’re dealing with greenhouse gases. We’ll probably get it killed in the first committee meeting [laughs]. We’ll see if we can get it through. But at least we’re sparking a debate. I misjudged the reaction to this bill. I didn’t even do a press release until yesterday afternoon. I got kind of caught off guard. We’re just trying to provide some ideas. I did not expect our governor to make a big deal out of high-speed rail, and kind of hint that he thought it was too expensive, it was taking too long and it had no accountability. So I’m thinking, it’s kind of interesting timing, but why don’t we do something in the meantime? If we’re trying to move people, we’re trying to get them from LA to San Francisco and back, give them the lanes and let them go.
R&T: The proposal is definitely making a splash.
Sen. Moorlach: My district in Orange County has the most new-car dealers of any district. It has everything: McLaren, Rolls-Royce, Bentley, everything. The Lamborghini dealership, I can walk to it from my house, literally a block away. We’ve got everything here. But if you really want to enjoy those cars, you have to break the law. That or you go to a track, and we don’t really have a lot of tracks [....] Even my Impala, which is how many years old, at 2000 RPM cruises quietly and comfortably at 80 mph.
R&T: And at that point you're already breaking the law.
Sen. Moorlach: Exactly. In fact, in California, sometimes if you’re not doing 80, you’re slowing people down. I did get ticketed once for doing a little more than that. I kind of chewed out the officer, saying, I’m not gonna jeopardize my wife and son, but the cars are flying past me here [....] I said, you better tell me how fast I can go to get home without being cited. Sometimes if you’re doing the posted speed limit, you’re actually being the slow driver. We’re getting truck drivers calling, saying, how come you’re still limiting us to 55 mph? We’ve got deadlines, we’ve got time constraints. We had one call yesterday saying, I got cited for doing 69—14 miles over the limit—it cost me 500 bucks, and the CHP officer said, sorry, I feel bad, but I’m just doing my job upholding the state law. There’s a lot of things that we can look at here as to how we’re dealing with speed limits and traffic flo