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STATE, DRIVERS GEAR FOR 65 MPH SPEED LIMIT BUT DEBATE RAGES ON FALLOUT FROM TUESDAY'S CHANGE

Even as the new speed limit signs are being hammered into place across the state, the debate rages on.

Will the increase to 65 mph, starting Tuesday on 1,135 miles of rural four-lane highways, turn the roads into a high-speed demolition derby, with traffic routinely whizzing by at 75 mph?

Or will the change have little effect, merely conforming to how fast people already drive?

At one end of the road, from the perspective of his former patrol car, sits Kevin P. Walsh of West Seneca, who wrote 4,000 tickets in his 20-year career with the State Police.

Since troopers routinely give drivers at least a 10 mph cushion, the state's "enforceable" speed limit will rise from 65 to 75, thanks to the bill signed last month by Gov. Pataki, Walsh contends.

"He's smiling, but he's walking over the graves of people who are going to be killed," Walsh claimed.

That's one view.

Brock Yates of Wyoming County, an editor at large for Car and Driver magazine, disagrees. He applauds the new speed limit and thinks it could go even higher.

"I think 65 is perfectly adequate," Yates said. "I think we could edge it up to 70, but 65 is fine. It's a big step forward, and it's way overdue."

Tuesday, New York becomes the 46th state to enact a 65 mph speed limit on at least some roads. A similar law in Pennsylvania took effect earlier this month. Only Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware and Hawaii have no speed limits exceeding 55 mph.

In Western New York, the new 65 mph limit will become the law on "non-urban" sections of the Thruway and on the four-lane section of Route 17.

The key issue in the debate over the new speed limit is how fast people will drive.

From his own experiences, Walsh, the retired state trooper, believes he knows what will happen.

"When the speed limit changes to 65 miles an hour, almost immediately there will be a five- to seven-mph increase in the speed. But once people start getting comfortable, they'll go a little faster," Walsh claimed. "Within a few months, they'll be going 10 miles per hour faster."

Yates, the magazine editor, expects virtually no change in drivers' habits. Drivers already have found their comfort zone of speed, and they won't veer far from that, he contends.

"They've been driving at about 70 miles per hour for the last five or six years," he said. "They may go up a tick or two, but you're not going to see a 75 (average) on the Thruway."

The best way to gauge motorists' reaction to a higher speed limit may come from northeastern Ohio, where westbound New York and Pennsylvania drivers already adjust to a 10 mph increase wherever they cross into Ohio.

"I've cited quite a few New York and Pennsylvania residents for pretty high speeds," said Lt. George Williams of the Ohio Highway Patrol at Ashtabula. "I would say they're right in there with everybody else."

How about speeding tickets under the new speed limit?

This is tricky territory, because public statements from the police officials often don't reflect the practices of most working officers and troopers.

The age-old rule of thumb is that drivers get a cushion, or tolerance level, of seven to 10 mph above the posted 55 limit. But a trooper looking to make his daily quota still may write a ticket at 58 or 60.

"I caution the public not to think that there is a tolerance level and that it might be translated to this new speed limit," State Police Major Pedro J. Perez said last week.

But Walsh, the retired trooper, said he routinely gave a 10 mph cushion on radar and about 15 mph when he was clocking a speeder.

The reason: judges often threw out cases when someone exceeded the speed limit by less.

Yates, the magazine editor, expects to see more rigid enforcement of the new speed level, at least for a while. He believes that the cushion of 10 to 15 mph may be reduced to five mph.

"One of the easiest and most brainless ways to justify law enforcement is through speeding tickets," he said. "It'll look like they're completely irrelevant unless they try to hold people to 70 miles per hour."

That was the case in Ohio, where the new 65 speed limit was accompanied by a zero-tolerance policy under which people got tickets for driving less than five mph above the speed limit.

The rigid enforcement has had an effect.

"I would say, as an average, people are driving 68 to 70," Williams said.

So some evidence suggests that actual speeds -- because of drivers' comfort zones or rigid law enforcement -- might not rise the full 10 mph of the speed limit increase.

But drivers no doubt will be pressing down a little harder on the accelerator.

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