John Kelly
John Kelly
Columnist

Beltway speeds, then and now

In 1970, when I was 18, I got my first used VW Beetle. Was the speed limit on the Beltway really 70 mph back then, or am I having a senior moment? Even though the speed limit is currently 55 mph, everybody does 70 nowadays, but at least it was legal back then.

— Ann Van Aken, Arlington

(Wally McNamee/ The Washington Post ) - Cars drive down the Capital Beltway on August 13, 1964.
  • (Wally McNamee/ The Washington Post ) - Cars drive down the Capital Beltway on August 13, 1964.
  • (File/ The Washington Post ) - *A look at the Capital Beltway in 1965.

(Wally McNamee/ The Washington Post ) - Cars drive down the Capital Beltway on August 13, 1964.

The final segment of the circumferential highway we know as the Capital Beltway was completed on Aug. 17, 1964. Enthused The Washington Post: “The four-to-six-lane interstate highway stretches like a broad oval speedway buckling the two states together with the Cabin John and Woodrow Wilson bridges across the Potomac.”

The paper continued: “It will allow motorists to jump from Montgomery County to Alexandria and from Prince George’s to Fairfax without setting a wheel in the District. Suburban shopping centers have been waiting for the day.

“The Beltway has no stop signs, traffic lights or billboards on either side of the Potomac. Speed limits will be 65 mph in Virginia and 60 in Maryland.”

If it seems odd that the concept of a ring road had to be explained, remember that before the Beltway, all roads pretty much led through Washington. Also be aware that when The Post wrote “four-to-six-lane” highway, we meant total, not in each direction, as it is now.

The speed limits must not have seemed unusual to motorists back then. In fact, the speed limit was eventually raised to 70 on some portions of the Beltway, such as from Route 50 to the Potomac in Maryland, thought to be the best-engineered section of the road.

There was just one problem: The speed limit was killing people. A little more than a year after the Beltway was completed, AAA urged that the limit be reduced to 50 mph between Silver Spring and Bethesda, a notoriously twisty stretch known as the “roller coaster.” The Montgomery County police superintendent agreed. The existing 60 mph limit “doesn’t give the nine out of ten good drivers time to compensate for the errors of the poor drivers on the Beltway,” James S. McAuliffe told The Post at the time.

Safety experts pointed out that the very design of the Beltway was dangerous. Some guardrails led careening motorists into bridge abutments; others shunted them back onto the highway and into traffic. That’s where there were guardrails. Great stretches had none, not even around bridge piers. Lanes narrowed from three to two without sufficient warning. Lightposts and sign poles were built to withstand collisions rather than to shear off when hit. At a congressional hearing in 1967, an investigator testified that there had been 77 deaths on the Beltway since it opened, or an average of more than two a month.

Officials took note. The speed limit was lowered to 50 in the Roller Coaster. Over time, the death traps were removed, too, and the Roller Coaster was smoothed out. When the energy crisis hit in 1973, Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel (D) lowered the limit to 50 mph on all of Maryland’s highways, including its portion of the Beltway. A year later, the federal National Maximum Speed Limit Law capped highway speeds at 55 mph.

And that’s what the Beltway limit has been ever since, even though Congress returned control of speed limits to the states in 1995.

Drive safely.

Poetry corner:

Can you help?

When Browne L. Kooken was a child growing up in Western Maryland in the 1950s, his only link to Washington and its baseball team was the sports- page clippings his great-aunt mailed to him. In one of them was a poem about the luckless Senators’ long-suffering fans. It began something like this:

Spring, Spring, the royal season,

Sing all ye who have a reason,

No joy here from Section D,

Well, may you ask, just who are we?

We are the backers of also-rans,

We are the loyal Washington fans,

No joyous shout, no yelp of glee,

Has come to us since ’33!

Browne, now living in Upper Marlboro, would like to find the rest of the poem, which he thinks must have been printed in a Washington newspaper. Can anyone help him?

Send your questions (and comments) to answerman@washpost.com.

 
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