The Effect Of A National Speed Limit On Traffic Safety & Fuel Prices

By James Baxter, NMA President

In 1982 Congress authorized the National Academy of Science to do a study that documented the “benefits” of the 55 MPH National Maximum Speed Limit (NMSL).

I, as the President of the organization most critical of the national speed limit, was considered as a potential member of the advisory panel to oversee and guide this study.

This invitation was withheld and never offered because it was determined (by an unknown someone) that political advocates would not be seated on the Advisory Panel. In exchange, I was offered the opportunity to present testimony to the Advisory Panel and Transportation Research Board staff responsible for the national speed limit study.

While my testimony covered a wide range of subjects I specifically attacked the premise that the 55 MPH NMSL was responsible for reducing highway fatalities by 17 percent (from 55,000 to 46,000 traffic related deaths). I pointed out that many of those reductions took place on roads and streets with speed limits that were never higher than 55 miles per hour. Even those fatal accidents that did take place on highways with higher speed limits were often in no way related to speed or speed limits.

My main premise was that the combination of a distressed economy, embargo related fuel shortages, and escalating fuel prices drastically reduced discretionary travel and that is why fatalities dropped in the manner they did.

My apolitical detractors on the Advisory Panel (like former heads of NHTSA and insurance industry representatives) were quick to point out that miles traveled only declined two to three percent, so surely reduced travel could not account for 9000 fewer fatalities in 1974. However, subsequent investigation by the TRB staff ultimately determined that estimates of vehicle miles traveled are riddled with inconsistencies and contradictions. (They remain so today.)

In the end, the authors of the “55” study concluded that the reduced speed limit was responsible for somewhere between 2000 to 4000 of the fewer fatalities (a number dutifully reported by U.S. Senator Warner during a recent press conference promoting the reincarnation of a national speed limit). This number was little more than a politically expedient guess.

Fast forward to July 2008, the economy is in distress, fuel is readily available but very expensive, and traffic-related fatalities are plummeting.

The big missing ingredient is that there is no national speed limit to take the credit.

Furthermore, while travel speeds have decreased, the decrease is very moderate — approximately an average of one mile per hour according to our home state (Wisconsin) highway patrol. Highway fatalities are 30 percent behind those of a year ago for the same time period, in the same state.

There’s the usual official claptrap about stepped up speed enforcement, DUI arrests, and restrictions on teen driving, all of which were equally in play last year and the year before that. The bottom line is that discretionary travel has tanked and with it some of our highest risk driving. This trend will continue until the economy recovers and/or household fuel bills decline.

Fuel prices are likely to remain high, at least in the near term and probably beyond that. However, individual strategies intended to reduce fuel use will reduce household fuel bills. To the extent that these strategies reduce travel we will see commensurate fatality reductions. Those strategies that simply make travel less expensive, e.g. buying a more efficient vehicle, will increase travel and most likely they will result in increased traffic related fatalities. The good news is that long term trends indicate reduced highway fatality rates, primarily because of better vehicles and improved highways.

Political gimmicks, like 55 MPH national speed limits, will not improve highway safety, reduce fuel prices, or have a meaningful effect on fuel supplies. All they do is generate red tape, traffic tickets, and auto insurance surcharges.

Keep that in mind the next time you hear some self-appointed “expert” touting a national speed limit.

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27 Responses to “The Effect Of A National Speed Limit On Traffic Safety & Fuel Prices”

  1. Todd says:

    The politians that are advocates to the 55-national max speed limit are either corrupt, or just plain blind and stupid to see the real facts(which is that "drive-55" had nothing to do with the falling deaths rates on the roads). It just so sad that we have some politians that are corrupt or just plain stupid.

    The sick part about it is that some corrupt politians/police/etc try to hide there "money making scam" behind "Its for safety". Please give me a break. But then again there are good leaders and police that really care for our saftey and those are the ones I am for just as long as they go about it in a approiate manner.

    P.S Sorry for being so blunt.

  2. TONY RICH says:

    The best thing to do is let the price of gasoline go as high as the market will pay for it the bubble has already burst and prices are comeing down without a federal speed limit.

  3. We Americans are a 'whining' bunch…

    I agree with Tony, let gas prices equalize to the level that has been paid by citizens from around much of the world for a very long time.

    Our society has made some very poor choices over the years:

    Our government has incentives for individuals/corporations to "invest" in large fuel ineffecient vehicles.

    The selection of personal vehicles overtasked for normal day-to-day driving (ie; large, heavy, and fuel inefficient all-wheel driver SUVs).

    Our auto manufacturers choosing short-term profits over sound long-term vehicle development (they are now finally beginning to pay the price for that decision!)

    Our unwillingness to develop and implement an appropriate energy policy (which includes harvesting our own domestic resources instead of relying on importing them).

    Our unwillingness to invest in high-speed rail transportation alternatives.

    As a country, we represent a fraction of the world's population, but consume the greatest percentage of fuel. This has to stop.

    The best thing we can do is let the free-market create the natural incentives for individuals to change their behavior in a healthy way.

    Bottom line: The "government" has been part of the problem. More goverment control over our citizens lives (which is already at an all-time high) is NOT the answer and that goes for another political stunt in the form of some Draconian national speed limit. (Remember, it is an election year.)

    Innovative individuals and companies will devise (ultimately) appropriate long-term solutions.

    As they say, neccessity is the mother of invention!

    Speed Trap Hunter

  4. James Young says:

    {The best thing we can do is let the free-market create the natural incentives for individuals to change their behavior in a healthy way.}

    We no longer have free markets in this nation or around the globe. Many businesses – integrated oil companies in particular – have the ability to manipulate supplies and therefore price, so free markets are a thing of the past. In the very long run the basic elements of supply and demand will obtain but our problem is much shorter in horizon than allowing markets to play out. We need to (1) regulate huge corporations to assure the playing field is not tilted by them for them and (2) encourage long-term alternatives to extant sources of energy.

  5. Randy says:

    James Young and how is regulating huge corporations going to assure a level playing field? What huge corporation that you know of is responsible for deciding how much oil is produced and is manipulating the market? You are against goverment regulations under almost all circumstances but ready to have full regulation against some huge corporation that you have not mentioned the name of. Who are you going to encourage alternate energy to?

  6. James Young says:

    Randy writes: { . . . how is regulating huge corporations going to assure a level playing field?}

    There are no assurances, only steps in the right direction.

    {What huge corporation that you know of is responsible for deciding how much oil is produced and is manipulating the market?}

    Start with ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, right on down to ConocoPhillips, etc. Remember when Enron was manipulating the electricity market in California, gouging customers and ridiculing them behind their back? The same thing is happening with IOCs. Why do you think they haven’t built a refinery for 30 years? No, it’s not environmental restrictions but IOCs restricting capacity in order to drive up prices and market control. It took less than 100 years for the Standard Oil trust to put itself back together after SCOTUS broke them up in 1911. Do you really want to believe that was all about market efficiency or is it really about market control.

    {You are against goverment regulations under almost all circumstances but ready to have full regulation against some huge corporation that you have not mentioned the name of. }

    I support government regulation that makes sense, that accomplishes what it is supposed to accomplish and is equitable in its application. Reagan deregulated without thought of the consequences because he believed (naively) that it would create more competition but what it created most of all was predatory market practices, alá Enron.

    I don’t know what your last sentence means.

  7. Doug says:

    Actually, oil is a remarkable deal. For all the technology required to find and extract it, the political and environmental risks involved, the costs of processing, storage and the infrastructure involved in getting it to market, it still costs less per liter (excluding taxes) than one pays for a can of Coca Cola in a 7/11 or a cup of Starbuck’s coffee.

  8. Doug,

    Amen brother to that sentiment.

    I really get tired of the same-old "blame the corporations" anti-business rhetoric which stems from the left.

    I believe the profit margins of oil-producing corporations are not out of line (if not smaller) as compared to other industry segments.

    Besides there are many other useful by-products the are produced from oil than mere gasoline.

    EM, nor any other company is manipulating the prices on the mercantile exchange, IMO.

    If anything, it's global competition that is, in large part, driving oil prices (India & China) along with uncertainty (about certain unresolved geo-political situations).

    I would very much like to know how many left-leaning, blame the big-bad corporation first crowd, actually own and drive large fuel-inefficient vehicles.

    For the all the hype generated about Al Gore's "environmentalism" who wastes tremendous amount of energy, himself, it's unfortunate that the left-leaning media doesn't accurately cover how energy efficient Bush 31's ranch in Texas is.

    For if they did, it would be clear to many more who the more real-world environmentally conscience individual is and who is the pretender…

    Speed Trap Hunter

  9. …And, I left out perhaps the most important contributing factor to "high" oil prices (and other commodities), a justifiably weak U.S. dollar. Much of that brought about by poor fiscal policy and profligate spending and borrowing by an already over-sized federal government. What happened to the GOP's priniciples?

    Unfortunately, at this point, there appears very little substantive difference between either political party when it comes to large government [spending].

    As I stated earlier, IMO, the government has been [a large] part of the problem. Adding more government regulation (ie; bigger government) is certainly not the solution.

    However, encouraging and/or incentivizing "better" behavior (by both state and federal government) would be a good step (perhaps in the form of tax-credits, etc.) in the right direction…

    For the record, I am no fan of Exxon either– ever since its involvement in the Valdez fiasco. I will never forget the ineptness all-around and the vast environmental devistation that continues through this day.

    I vote with my feet (and dollars) and choose to purchase my fuel, elsewhere.


  10. …It must have been late…I meant Bush 43's ranch…

  11. Baja Joes says:

    At $130/barrel for oil with 42/gal/barrel that would make the initial cost of a gallon of gas $3.00. Where I live it is selling for right at $4/gal. That would seem to indicate that all other costs involved in getting that gallon of gas in your car is $1.00
    Sounds reasonable to me.
    What do you all think?

  12. Baja Joes says:

    Guys, Disregard my previous post! It sounded good but it is flawed in that I don't know how many gallons of oil it takes to make
    1 gal of gas. Sorry.

  13. Baja,

    Many years ago, if I recall it correctly, I was told by a Sunoco staff member who worked at a their refinery in Philadelphia, that the percentage break-down was something like this:

    70%, gas, 20% petroleum-based chemicals, 10% heavy material (like stuff used in paving).

    I believe that was the ratio, but, again, I am not certain of it (ie; take this with a grain of salt).

    Speed Trap Hunter

  14. Jeff says:

    Speed trap hunter must be single and live in Florida – ……..personal vehicles overtasked for day-to-day driving i.e. large, heavy fuel-inefficient AWD SUVs. Ever try to fit 4 kids and 2 adults into a VW Golf? Not comfortable and probably not legal in most states. How do I pull a 25-foot camper with a Toyota Corolla? Did you ever think that maybe some people drive large SUVs for daily errands is because their household income does not allow them to buy multiple vehicles for multiple uses? AWD comes in real handy when pulling a boat up a slippery boat ramp or driving thru 10 inches of snow.

    If we want to save gas, let's ban all pleasure boat use, ban all airline travel for pleasure purposes, and ban all mistimed traffic signals.

    Did you ever price a ticket on one of those high speed trains in Europe? I did when I was over there. It costs as much as an airline ticket. The working class Europeans take the old-tech "slow" trains (equivalent to our Amtrack).

  15. Jeff says:

    Please explain to me in more detail the incentives given to me to invest in large fuel inefficient vehicles? The taxes I pay keep going up year after year. Where is this incentive hidden? The more I drive, the more gas tax I pay.

    Also explain to me why German and British vehicles get such lousy gas mileage. Wouldn't you think that in countries where gas has been over $5 a gallon, these countries would be selling vehicles which get better gas mileage than American vehicles? European car makers pay more in US government "gas guzzler" taxes than either American or Asian car companies. Those big BMW and Mercedes V8s and V12s are real models of efficiency, wouldn't you say?

  16. Jeff,

    Close…I am married and live in the northeast.

    30 years ago, my family of five managed multiple cross country trips in a vehicle that was not all wheel drive nor weighed 5500 pounds.

    We did it in a station wagon!

    Funny thing, I see plenty of large SUVs in Florida with AWD too.

    Are they all driven by 7 member families? Most of the time they I to be driven by lone women drivers.

    I think one could purchase a used civic for about thirty suv tankfulls.

    Plenty of small euro stick oilburners that get great fuel mileage.

    Plenty of ordinary folk that ride the tube and the fabulous mass transit systems of the Far East.

    Speed trap hunter

  17. jeff,

    These exotics are indeed poor models of efficiency.

    Only thing is they are not produced nor driven in the hundreds of thousands either.

    Sure, a Lambo may get 9mpg, but they are produced in the qty of 100s and the people that drive them can afford the petro.

    See you at the pump!


  18. Jeff says:

    Speed trap hunter used to take trips in a big, gas-guzzling station wagon? I remember those from the 1970s – big V8, rear wheel drive, weighed 2 tons.

  19. Jeff,

    You must be joking.

    The wagon sure got better (highway) mileage than these newer larger "trucks" and that includes thirty years of improved engine/combustion designs and chassis fabrication/materials.

    With respect to incentives for large vehicles, where have you been?

    Speedtrap Hunter

  20. Jeff says:

    I don't remember any full size station wagons that got 20 mpg in the 1970s. Heck, a Pinto barely got 23 mpg back in 1978.

    I don't own a small business, so I'm out of luck. Hybrids get tax breaks even though the manufacturing processes used to make them are damaging to the environment. The Toyota Prius batteries are made in a grossly unenvironmentally way in Canada.

    You see plenty of AWD SUVs in Florida because that's what is needed to pull a boat up a slippery boat ramp. I've seen cars and 2WD pickups slide backwards into the water when trying to hoist a boat and trailer up a ramp.

  21. George 2 says:

    With our draconian system and with zillions of beautiful multi-lane highways bigger than any autobahn still set on 55 or 65 is an absolute crime. In America were constantly Driving in fear of getting pulled over, constantly looking down at the speedometer trying to maintain a certain speed and not to go over 1-3 mph a certain speed that might get you pulled over, but your already 10-15 mph over the posted 55 or 65 ridiculous speed limit. This is an accident causing distraction, but not in Europe when go there. Pay attention to the road and don't have to worry about unreasonable speed limits, cruising at 80-90 mph and that's only 5-9 over their limits. Paying attention to the road is good for safety, paying attention to a speedometer is unsafe and dangerous.

  22. Todd says:

    To George 2

    I can see your point of view. On some interstates 55 mph is too low and sometimes when conditions permit 100 mph could be done safely on those interstates. An autobahn for a two lane freeway is ok just as lone as people know how to handle their vehicles safely at autobahn speeds (which includes but is not limited to NO tailgating, signaling when changing lanes or turning), "Keep Right Except to Pass" is practice and enforce, vehicle safety inspections are more strict, roads are paved better, better road markings/signs, guard rails, stricter DUI consequences, reasonable police enforcement, etc. Honestly I don't think U.S. drivers are as discipline as the ones in Germany or in other words U.S. drivers are not ready for an autobahn.

    A two lane autobahn is safer than a multi-lane autobahn because on a multi-lane freeway their is more of a change of two drivers trying to switch into the same lane at the same time. Thats dangerous because if those two drivers crash at autobahn speeds I really don't think any driver will walk out of that crash ok. On a two lane freeway this doesn't happen as much as it does on a multi-lane freeway.

  23. Jeff says:

    George 2

    You are correct. 55 and 65 speed limits are a crime. They are illegally underposted in many states. Michigan traffic law states speed limits are to be set at 85th% speeds, but the 70mph speed limit is only a 30-50th% speed limit.

    When the 55 limit was imposed in 1974, the intent was that it would be a temporary limit and then speed limits would return to pre-1974 levels. As we all know, many states have not returned to pre-55 limits.

    • Phil Mckrackin says:

      illegally underposted?? If that is the case then you can set precedent just by fighting your case to the state supreme court. Since the 85th percentile is used in most municipalities along with other factors to determine the number that goes onto the sign and EVERY state has rules on how to derrive that number if you can prove the number doesn't meet the criteria set forth in said rules you'll win your case. Good luck with that!

  24. Randy says:

    George 2 if people would not have to 20 mph over any limits whatever they are everyone could set their cruise control pretty much at the speed limit and there would be no problems at all. Even on two lane interstates it would not be a crime to switch to and stay in the left lane a while if there are slower trucks running in the right lane. It is the 85 percentile and above that cause much of the problems while in traffic. They also cause others to have to drive faster if they get in the left lane to get away from trucks because they are mostly all tailgaters.

  25. […] during the national speed limit’s lifetime. Buzz-killing critics of the law point out that no, no they […]

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