NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — North Dakota Legislators Start Small

Twelve and a half minutes and two screws.

That’s what two of the first bills submitted to North Dakota’s 65th Legislative Assembly address.

This is the kind of stuff guys love. No wonder, then, that the whole state is talking about two proposals submitted by Grand Forks legislators. One would raise the speed limit on North Dakota’s interstates and divided highways by 5 miles per hour. The other would free car and truck owners from the onerous burden of displaying a second license plate on their front bumpers.

It’s what you call “starting small.”

Grand Forks Republican Sen. Lonnie Laffen has prefiled a bill to boost the limit on interstates 94 and 29 from the current 75 miles per hour, where it’s languished for the past 13 years. His measure would raise it to 80 mph. “I think we can handle it now,” he told a Forum News Service reporter.

His rationale? Highways have been engineered to be safer over time, he says. So have cars and trucks. Apparently, the only thing that hasn’t been upgraded for greater speed is the same old bored and/or distracted drivers behind the wheel. Perhaps the measure should be put on hold until self-driving cars make faulty humans obsolete.

Advocates for the need for speed also whine a familiar refrain: “Buuut … all the cool kids are doing it!” Well, maybe not all — but it’s indeed true that six of the biggest, manliest states in the neighborhood do get to drive faster than the meanies in the Legislature say that we’re supposed to. That includes both Montana and South Dakota. So far, most of their residents seem to have survived the adjustment.

Meanwhile, though, drivers in a lot of states we can see from here still manage to get where they’re going by dawdling along at 70. That includes not only stodgy old Minnesota but almost every one east of the Great Plains, along with Oregon and California. Alaska and a handful of Yankee holdouts even hang onto 65 on their interstates … all, in fact, but those crazy Maineiacs, who amp it up to 75.

While raising North Dakota’s speed limit might lift a small burden from drivers’ consciences, most of them have long absorbed any “efficiency” the bill’s sponsor can promise. By my own rough estimate, 98 percent of cars and trucks tap their brakes whenever they spot the Highway Patrol. (The other 2 percent are busy peeking over the steering wheel and holding the line at 40.) Folk wisdom suggests we all can get away with at least an extra 5 or 10 miles of velocity … and given the number of jacked-up pickups and sporty red models that whiz by whenever we hit the road, that seems archaic.

Let’s face it. A state where the Legislature has long resisted raising fines above $10 is already the finest place in the country to get a ticket. Web auto enthusiasts from Popular Mechanics to autoevolution.com have heralded this top ranking. And there’s more: North Dakota also is said to have fewer speed traps than any other stretch of road the country.

So why is it so important to speed up legal travel on the interstates in North Dakota? The bill’s sponsor cites “efficiency.” A suspicious mind might link this to the length of his commute to Bismarck. It’s 253 miles, well in excess of most of his peers.

Boosting the limit will certainly shorten his drive … by 12½ minutes.

* * *

Why would anyone bother to argue whether to eliminate license plates on front bumpers of cars and trucks?

Rep. Mark Owens prefiled a bill that would do just that. Another Grand Forks Republican, he argues that several other states require only one rather than a duplicated pair. It’s a matter of tidying up, he suggested to KCND Radio, “So why in the world do we have something on the books, cluttering up the code that says you got to have two plates? We might as well just get rid of the other license plate and make life a little easier.”

I’m all for making life easier, but life hacks to solve this burden hadn’t even shown up yet on Pinterest. Trying to understand, I reached out to the kind of drivers who care about such things. That would be … males. (Not one woman within shouting distance of North Dakota — or anywhere — gives a rat’s behind about this pressing matter.) And here’s what I found out.

The one-plate standard thrives primarily in the South, as well as a handful of outliers like Oklahoma, Kansas, Arizona, New Mexico and a few in the Old Midwest. Most of the country, including Texas, demands the pair of plates normal people like us have come to expect.

Moreover, the front plate does serve a useful purpose. Criminals don’t always conveniently park with their back bumpers pointing outward or drive exclusively ahead of investigators. It is invaluable for spotting stolen cars, as well as identifying drivers who run red lights or drive off from the gas pump and are caught on surveillance video, .

That all makes sense. Yet a few of the folks I queried (all male — do I even need to mention?) have their reasons for favoring a plate-free front bumper. Some, who happen to prize their sleek, sporty, highly sculpted thoroughbreds, decry how a front plate mars their auto babies’ nose profile. Others mention the annoyance of having to install it on their bumpers — a matter of two whole screws.

One posits that changing the law is a matter fairness, striking a blow for of equal automotive rights. He reasons that North Dakota (like 30 other states) requires two plates on licensed cars and trucks … yet lets motorcycles get away with only one. Discrimination? That depends, though, on your point of view. One might make an equally valid argument that requiring the pair is a shining example of fair and equal treatment, based on a ratio of one license plate per two wheels.

But there’s another, more interesting backstory here, says a knowledgeable friend who witnessed the birth of the measure in discussions among members of the North Dakota Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys:

“Very few states, mostly in the South, have a single-plate law. With the expansion of the Oil Patch, many Southerners came to North Dakota to find employment. After they applied for their North Dakota license plate, they were told they could no longer display their Stars and Bars front decorative plate.

“Well, these newly minted NoDaks kept right on showing off their rebel flags in front, attaching just one of the North Dakota plates on the back. But doing so created ‘probable cause’ for law enforcement to stop them and led to arrests for DUI, drugs and other violations. That inspired some criminal defense attorneys to spearhead this effort to change the law in the 2017 session, letting their clients keep their Confederate pride intact — and removing officers’ right to stop them on the road.

“If this bill passes,” my correspondent adds, “I would imagine we will soon see an uptick in Bison and Fighting *Whatever* front plates … along with a wider smattering of the good old Stars and Bars. You know, for those of us NoDaks who identify as rebels.”

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