Driving Beyond the Nanny State

I’ve spent a lot of time on the road during my first four months in Des Moines, visiting all 99 of Iowa’s counties by highway, and making forays into all of Iowa’s neighbor states. It has been quite a different experience than I had driving around Upstate New York for all those years, needless to say, though not necessarily in the ways that you might expect.

First and foremost, there’s far less regulation into what and how you drive out here. Speed limits are higher on both Interstate and State highways, cars don’t have to be inspected annually for emissions or basic road-worthiness, helmets aren’t required for motorcyclists, permits and  licenses are available to kids at a younger age, massive farm equipment and Amish or Mennonite horse-drawn buggies are welcome (and common) on many roads, you can talk on your cell phone while driving, and the Iowa State Department of Transportation is far less inclined than its New York counterpart to spend money putting signs up all over the State telling you things like “It is the LAW to turn on your lights while your windshield wipers are operating!”

There are no toll roads in Iowa, and few fully controlled access highways once you get off of the pair of Interstate Highways that cut Iowa into quarters (I-30 and I-85), with Des Moines as their crossing point. While people may assume that driving around out here in “flyover country” would be tedious, I can tell you categorically that there is no highway in Iowa as skull-crushingly boring as the New York Thruway, with its cookie-cutter, controlled-access rest areas, endless, unchanging screens of trees blocking the views of anything interesting, and complete lack of any sort of roadside vernacular available to keep the eyes and brain engaged.

Highways of Madison County. Do not drive off their edges.

Regarding the New York Thruway, it is mind-boggling to me how much toll money I spent over the past 18 years to travel on a highway that I hated, simply because the alternatives seemed to be designed with one purpose in mind: to slow my trip down so much that I would be forced back on to the Thruway in desperation. Which worked, most of the time. Iowa, on the other hand, does a much better job of making the transit through most of its towns pleasant. In rural areas, in fact, many of the town centers are situated slightly off the highways, for easy access if you want it, or easy passage if you don’t. Good deal.

The State of Iowa’s more permissive approach to driving also extends to highway engineering itself. There are very, very few guard rails out here, for instance, compared to New York, so if you want to get careless and drive off the edge of the road, well, Iowa’s usually going to just let you do that. While this isn’t a dire problem much of the time, since a lot of the state has relatively wide shoulders that bleed into relatively flat fields, I have seen some pretty hairy highways (see U.S. 52 between Clinton and Dubuque or U.S. 169 in Madison County, for example) where the road bed sits high above dells, valleys, gulleys, ravines, or other low spots, so that an inadvertent adventure off the edge would result in some serious airborne excursions onto tree tops or through open space. I can’t swear to this, but it seems like the primary factor in guard rail placement is whether or not an airborne car would hit something else on its way down . . . so if a silo, or a train, or a cow, or a house is in danger, then you get a guard rail. Otherwise, though, keep your eyes on the road and your hands upon the wheel . . .or else . . .

There is one flip-side to this where Iowa offers a road safety feature that didn’t exist in New York: rumble strips in front of stop signs at rural intersections. Since it’s pretty easy to drop into a state of driver’s narcosis on long, straight, rural highways where your horizon is so far in front of you that you don’t really see anything closer unless it’s moving, stop signs tend to sneak up on you when you’re roaring down a two-lane at 68 miles per hour. To alleviate this potential disaster, most rural cross intersections have three sets of rumble strips in the road bed as you approach them, so you see a sign saying “STOP AHEAD,” then you get a three-part sonic warning as you approach the point where you have to stop, its pitch changing as you slow: BRRRRRRRPPPPPPPPPPPPPPP . . . . . . Brrrrrrrrppppppppppp . . . . . . . bbbbbbrrrrrrrppppppppppp . . . [and . . . stop]. At this point, it almost seems weird to come to a full stop without those familiar three rumbles.

For a guy who likes to drive (which would be me), Iowa is great fun, and the grid layout of much of the State means that there are almost an infinite number of (almost) equally good ways to get from Point A to Point B. I’ll be headed back to Dubuque on Thursday, and will undoubtedly take at least a dozen roads that I haven’t driven before, just because I can. As long as you can keep your cardinal points straight (which isn’t hard, when the sun is up), it’s easy to know when you’re headed in the right or wrong direction, and the long horizons give you plenty of time to adjust, when necessary.

I won’t have to pay any tolls on my way to Dubuque, and I won’t experience a barrage of signs explaining the arcana of State Transportation Law. I will, however, be able to get off the road wherever I want, and choose my own gas stations and restaurants, rather than being limited to ones that hold State contracts. I think this is a better world to drive in, and am sorry for those of you who only get to fly over it.