The N.C. Department of Transportation, as of a week ago today, has lowered the speed limit on Moore County’s historic Midland Road from 45 mph to 35. That’s a big deal, right?
Only if you choose to make it one.
There are still those who would do just that. Consider an otherwise sensible acquaintance of mine, who shall remain nameless, who swore this vow to me just a few weeks ago: “If they go through with this thing and lower the speed limit to 35, I swear I’ll never drive on that damned Midland Road again.”
Whatever. But that would appear to be trying to take something that is really just a practical decision and turn it into some kind of federal case or something. Surely there are more outrageous infringements on our sacred rights. (My friend would also appear to be cutting off his nose to spite his face, since alternative routes will probably still take longer.)
Midland, you will recall, is a 6-mile thoroughfare that runs between Southern Pines and Pinehurst. Once known informally as “the Double Road,” It supposedly has the honor of being recognized as the oldest stretch of four-lane highway in North Carolina.
Why was it divided in the first place? Because it once had a tram, or trolley car, running down the middle along much of its length to connect the Southern Pines rail station with the still-new Pinehurst in the early 20th century. The resort later got its own rail connection, and the tramway space was eventually taken up by a lot of trees, mostly pines.
It is mainly those trees that have put safety officials, so to speak, between a rock and a hard place. Said trees are pretty to look at, helping turn a drive along Midland into a distinctively pleasant experience that sort of embodies Moore County life. But they also help cause a greater-than-average rate of deaths and injuries.
It’s not, we’re told, that there are more accidents- per-mile-driven on Midland than on other roads. It’s that those accidents more often inflict physical harm because of the number of times when drivers and passengers come off distinctly second-best in encounters with big trees that aren’t going anywhere.
Like most folks in these parts, I’ve driven the length of Midland countless times without having a wreck, but I’m surely not the only one who has had his share of unnerving moments while negotiating those too-narrow lanes.
Say you were tooling along in the left lane at 50 mph (how many of us drive the actual speed limit?), when the driver of the slower-moving car or truck to your right started straying a bit in your direction, perhaps while talking on his cellphone. You were suddenly all too alarmingly aware that just a slight tap from that other vehicle could instantly send you careening into that massive pine standing way too close to the pavement.
After endless debate on what to do about the problem, the choices essentially came down to two: (1) lower the speed limit, or (2) cut down a whole bunch of trees, turning that quaintly picturesque thoroughfare into just another empty, characterless stretch of road.
I’m glad the powers-that-be chose Option 1, since I would tend to rank No. 2 right up there with the lamentable decision of a decade or so again to rip up all those nice crape myrtles
that used to grace the northern entrance of U.S. 1 into Southern Pines — and replace them with an empty median flanked by a mile or two of sterile metal barrier rails. Ugh!
OK. So what is the price we pay for a safer Midland? It’s easy to calculate, with the help of a stopwatch and a speedometer. Bear in mind, first of all, that the change we’re talking about affects not the entire 6-mile length of the road, but only the nearly 3-mile middle stretch between the U.S. 1 overpass in Southern Pines and Windmere Road in Pinehurst. The limit was already 35 on both ends.
I did some hands-on-the-wheel experimenting of my own early last week, just before the change went into effect. And what did I learn, after several trips up and down? Well, my findings confirmed the calculations of others: that covering that middle stretch at 40 mph took exactly one minute longer than doing it at 50.
Again, big deal. One minute. Sixty seconds — as much time as it takes you to put up with a commercial or two on the radio. If it saves the lives of a few humans and a great many trees, I say it’s more than worth it. Surely there are more urgent matters to be gunning our engines about.
Steve Bouser is the retired editor and opinion editor of The Pilot. Contact him at email@example.com.