In the Jan/Feb and Mar/Apr 1992 issues of the National Motorists Association News (a forerunner of Driving Freedoms), Jim Baxter wrote his account of the first ten years of the organization that was founded in 1982 to combat the restrictive 55 mph National Maximum Speed Limit.
This will be a trip down memory lane for those of you who were members back then, or what we hope will be an interesting story of perseverance and accomplishment if you are a more recent member.
The National Motorists Association, in its original incarnation, Citizens Coalition for Rational Traffic Laws, was officially founded in January, 1982. However, the forces creating the need for a national organization to represent motorists were put in motion in 1965-66. This was the end of the “car is king” era and the beginning of the “autos are evil” trend that remains so evident today.
Following WWII, there seemed to be no limit to the development, use, and accommodation of automobiles. The culmination of this “no holds barred” era was the authorization and construction of the Interstate highway system. This king of all public works projects re-defined personal and commercial transportation. It tied the country together, created tremendous opportunity and wealth, and changed our concepts of time and distance. It gave a whole new meaning to the phrase “personal mobility.”
This advance did not come without cost. Urban neighborhoods were destroyed, small villages and towns were rendered economically impotent, and unique cultures and natural treasures protected by distance and bad roads were laid bare for exploitation.
Railroads became irrelevant to the movement of passengers and high-value, low-volume goods. Millions of acres of land were converted to highway uses and related purposes. Every negative element had (has) its own constituency.
When the day came to make the automobile pay its dues, there was no shortage of willing floggers. The actual day the transformation from good car to bad car took place is up for debate. My preference is the day Congress authorized the formation of a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Others may prefer the day the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created. Most of you call it the Nader era.
Ultimately, it was epitomized during the Carter Administration when Joan Claybrook was appointed to head NHTSA. If Nader and Claybrook hadn’t existed, someone else would have cropped up to lead the charge against automobiles. The excesses were too obvious, the negative impacts too severe, and the constituency too large to ignore or disregard.
For 20 years, the pendulum has proceeded to swing in the opposite direction. Gas guzzler taxes, the 55 mph speed limit, the environmental impact statements, emission standards, five mph bumpers, ignition interlocks, and the 85 mph speedometer were all products of this period. Some were needed and others were merely self-serving gestures for the edification of those in power.
There was no organized force to resist or moderate these changes. The need had not previously existed. In a sense, there was no serious representation of millions of individuals interested in personal transportation, or those for whom automobiles were more than just an appliance. Into that vacuum stepped the Citizens Coalition for Rational Traffic Laws.
The CCRTL was the original incarnation of the NMA. Others had tried. Most notably was the National Drivers Association which entered the scene in 1978-79, with a flourish that included full page photos and endorsements in the major auto magazines.
Within a year, they had disappeared without a whimper, not even their supporters knew why. (I later learned that personal differences among the principals led to the NDA’s demise. I also suspect they became discouraged when the anticipated support from the motoring public did not materialize.)
I can still remember issuing the first news release announcing the formation of the Citizens Coalition for Rational Traffic Laws and our intention to repeal the 55 mph National Maximum Speed Limit. The release was confined to Wisconsin media, to avoid being swamped with interviews and membership inquiries. This turned out to be not a serious worry. After two weeks there were three or four membership inquiries, a couple “go get‘em but we’re not going to help” letters and a like amount of hate mail from the “go slow” crowd.
However, there was also a televised debate opportunity on a popular 5:00 PM news program. Hence began my education on talk shows and public affairs debates. To say I was badly beat up would be a kindness. Naively, I assumed the host would be neutral and that he would referee the verbal joust in a manner fair to all. And elephants cross-country ski . . .
Keep in mind, this is 1982 and “55” is claimed to be supported by 80 percent of the American public, according to Gallup polls. The host is a believer. I found myself debating two people, my original opponent, a public relations type from AAA, and the host.
The host asked the AAA rep a question and he spent 5 minutes reciting “saves lives” and “saves gas” statistics. My friend, the host, restated the points made by Mr. AAA and then said to me, “How can you support changing a law that saves two zillion lives and quattro billions of barrels of oil and may in fact be the savior of humanity?” I engaged my lightning wit and said “ahh . . . but I don’t” and the AAA PR guy chimed in with some condescending statement like “Mr. Baxter probably doesn’t have all the information we professionals have at hand” and the program was over.
Brutal as this experience was, it was better to learn these lessons through a local TV station than on a nationally televised program. For the next year, we struggled with membership recruitment and cultivated media contacts. The one organization that took our efforts seriously and gave CCRTL real support was the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA). They publicized our organization and adopted the repeal “55” campaign as one of their legislative objectives.
There was more than one public hearing or meeting where, if the AMA hadn’t been there, I would have been the sole speaker supporting the repeal of “55.” Membership recruitment was a frustrating affair. (It still is! If you’re not a member, please join.)
One killer idea guaranteed to “bring ‘em in” was a mailing to people who received tickets for exceeding 55 mph on interstate highways. To test the concept, we sent 120 ticket recipients a compelling letter and a stamped self-addressed envelope for them to return their $15.00 and membership application. Not one response! Not a “Sign me up.” Not a “Try me when you change the law.” Not even a “No thanks”, or “You’re crazy.”
So much for that brainstorm.
This was the rule, not the exception. Feeling the need for more exposure, I decided a trip to Washington D.C. was in order. On the way, I stopped in the offices of Car and Driver Magazine and talked to then Assistant Editor, Rich Ceppos. Mr. Ceppos asked good questions, listened intently, and took many notes. I left confident an article would soon follow. It didn’t. However, in later years, Car and Driver honored myself, CCRTL and the NMA in three different “Ten Best” issues.
My time in Washington was spent seeking out Members of Congress who were known supporters of our point of view (there weren’t that many) and visiting agencies like the Federal Highway Administration. My conversation with Ray Barnhart, then head of FHwA made it clear that we had valuable technical support but tremendous political opposition.
Meetings with Members of Congress and their staffs were not encouraging. Those from rural western states were sympathetic, but their numbers were small and their willingness to confront leadership or the so-called “safety” lobby was non-existent. We had a long way to go!
Our first real break was handed to us by the opposition. It came in the form of a Congressionally-mandated study of the 55 mph National Maximum Speed Limit (NMSL). Representative James Howard, Chairman of the House Public Works and Transportation Committee and chief proponent of “55” knew public compliance with the national speed limit was declining as was state interest in intensive enforcement. He decided a case had to be made to justify more punitive sanctions and stricter enforcement.
The means he chose was to fund a National Academy of Sciences study of the “benefits” of the 55 mph NMSL. The National Academy of Science is claimed to be a research organization without political agenda or personal bias. (If you believe this, I refer you back to the skiing elephant statement.) Actually, there were researchers in the Academy who wanted to take a fairer look at the subject, but they were stymied to some degree by poor data, limited resources, and concerns over political repercussions.
I was initially considered as a potential member of the advisory panel that would oversee the study and interpret the results. Mysteriously, it was decided that persons representing advocacy organizations would not be invited to sit on the advisory board. Of course, groups like AAA, the insurance industry, and agencies that had been promoting “55” for several years were amply represented. For once, Joan Claybrook and I were in the same boat. She was excluded also, probably to justify my exclusion.
Three concessions were made to appease we rabble rousers: a) I would be given an opportunity to present testimony to the advisory committee, b) I could attend advisory committee meetings as an observer, and c) costs, as well as benefits of the NMSL would also be explored.
All went pretty much according to the script until I attended my first advisory committee meeting in Washington, D.C. I arrived at the meeting and received a less-than-warm welcome. This meeting was called to review the first draft of the study results. A thick document was distributed to all the attendees, all the attendees except me. When I asked for a copy, I was told it was “confidential and privileged information.”
This was a major blunder on their part. If they had given me a copy with the understanding that I not divulge its contents, pending the final version, I would have willingly consented. However, making me sit at a table without the ability to review and comment on the study that everyone else had in front of them made for one very unhappy camper. I silently fumed.
Once back in Wisconsin, I unleashed a torrent of calls and letters to anyone and everyone who had the ability to make life miserable for Academy researchers. In a few days, I had a copy of the preliminary draft, only now I was under no obligation of confidentiality.
The 55 benefit study was primarily a rehash of previously conducted research based on sketchy data, preconceived conclusions, and the interests of the funding agency. At a minimum, the Academy researchers admitted these shortcomings, albeit in couched terms.
A lengthy review and criticism of the preliminary study was circulated far and wide. It accomplished one thing. It created controversy which brought attention to the issue.
Meanwhile, back on the organizational front, our system of state chapters was starting to take shape. What we lacked in consistency and sophistication, we made up for with enthusiasm and energy. I flew to Washington, D.C. for the release of the 55 benefits study, including the evening dinner function that preceded the official release the following day.
My plane was late, someone canceled my room reservation just before I arrived, and the cab driver couldn’t find the National Academy of Science building. When I finally arrived at the reception, there were two gentlemen handing out old reprints of every magazine that condemned the 55 mph speed limit.
Most of the formally-attired guests looked a little uncomfortable clutching their copies of the 1977 Road and Track article, “Why 55 Doesn’t Save Lives,” or some variation thereof. The leafleteers turned out to be our Oklahoma State Chapter Coordinator (SCC), Anatoly Arutunoff, and his friend Bill Pryor. They were the last friendly faces I would see for the rest of the evening.
Actually, that’s not quite true. A pleasant young lady sat next to me during dinner. She was responsible for arranging my appearance on the MacNeil/Lehrer program the following evening. The next day was a three-ring circus including a press conference for the release of the “55 Benefits” study (staged by the National Academy of Science staff). We were poised with embarrassing questions and the authors were prepared with condescending or obfuscating answers.
Meanwhile, two of our past SCCs, Jerry Nowlin, MD and Will Fox, PA, were collaring anyone with a camera or pad and pencil and dragging them over to me, insisting that I be interviewed.
The press conference was a muddled affair with an abundance of oversimplified statements followed with numerous “howevers” and “buts” and qualifications. Our presence and knowledge of the study kept the authors on their toes and denied them license to wax on about how the NMSL was a great law, worthy of perpetuation.
They had to admit compliance was poor and declining, the “safety benefit” seemed to be less noticeable, and fuel savings were insignificant.
The MacNeil/Lehrer program was an interesting experience. Just being on it gives you instant credibility (not always deserved). Alan Altshuler, Chairman of the Advisory Committee, defended the study. I pointed out its contradictions, weaknesses, biases, and the admissions it made in our favor. Mr. Altshuler did not enjoy his role as defender of the “55 Benefits” study and I don’t think he publicly debated the subject again.
From that day forward, the proponents of 55 were on the defensive, and change became inevitable. The release of the National Academy of Science study 55, A Decade of Experience had exactly the opposite effect its proponents intended. Instead of giving “55” an unqualified endorsement, it opened a Pandora’s box of questions, inquiries, and inconsistencies.
For the first time, the general driving public began to question the validity of all those “55 saves gas, saves lives” rubber stamps the state DOTs were so fond of using. It started to show in opinion polls. The public’s statements more closely reflected their driving practices.
With all the renewed interest in the national speed limit issue, it was natural for certain members of Congress to consider legislative involvement. One such member was Representative Dan Glickman from Kansas. Rep. Glickman was Chairman of the Subcommittee on Transportation, Aviation and Materials.
His subcommittee did not have jurisdiction over the speed limit issue, but it did have a legitimate claim to research reports. Therefore, he called a hearing on the “55 Benefit” study. We had another platform to rap the 55 mph NMSL and to criticize the study intended to promote its existence.
The hearing, like most Congressional hearings, didn’t change anyone’s mind, but it did give the anti-55 community a chance to air its concerns and arguments. This was February 1985.
Back in the nitty gritty world of trying to build a larger more effective organization, we started to experiment with direct mail membership recruitment.
You haven’t really lived until you’ve spent several evenings collating, folding, stuffing, sorting, banding, and bagging several thousand pieces of mail. That’s what my office assistant did for more nights than she probably wants to remember. The bottom line was that, after several months of testing with small mailings, we determined this approach was cost-effective.
Next ensued one of the most frustrating episodes of my adult life.
As we noisily entered the Fall of 1986, it was apparent to me that Congress was at long last going to take up the speed limit issue. The federal highway bill was up for reauthorization and 55 was destined for a dose of reality. If we ever needed more members (who could apply more grassroots pressure), this was the time.
The issue was hot and our organization was the acknowledged leader of the 55 repeal movement. The planets were aligned for a major membership drive.
With cost estimates and direct mail test results in hand, I went looking for financial help. I could prove that our mailings would pay for themselves, and then some. Bank after bank turned me down. Collateral didn’t matter. They didn’t grasp what we were doing and when in doubt, did nothing.
Day by day, I watched Congress march closer toward the speed limit debate while we were rendered impotent through a lack of funds. By pure chance, Washington got ensnared in election year quarrels and the highway bill was carried over to 1987.
Just when our options seemed exhausted, a small, locally-owned Wisconsin bank said they would consider our loan request if we could scale it down to a more modest amount. We did, they did, and out went 300,000 letters. The loan was paid off in 45 days and the Citizens Coalition for Rational Traffic Laws had several thousand new members.
By the way, we still bank at the same local bank that gave us that first loan.
Editor’s note: In 2011, twenty-nine years after the founding of Citizens Coalition for Rational Traffic Laws, the NMA continues to conduct business with the small town Wisconsin bank that provided the original seed money.
In February 1987, we focused all our energies on the federal highway bill and the options for repealing 55. We hired our first contract lobbyist, attended press conferences and hearings, and personally lobbied Members of Congress. Special alerts were sent out whenever the need arose.
Senate sponsors of the 65 mph proposal made several attempts to compromise with Rep. James Howard, Chairman of the House Committee on Public Works and Transportation. Every time the senators agreed to Rep. Howard’s conditions, he would back off and up the ante. Finally, Rep. Howard agreed to a straight up or down vote on the House Floor. March 18, 1987 was the moment of truth.
The following excerpt describing the day’s events is from our April 1987 newsletter:
After a flawless ‘Metro’ ride to downtown D.C., I met our lobbyist Eric Peterson and joined him in his unfulfilled quest for a good place to eat breakfast. Following a hearty meal of toast and coffee, we headed to Eric’s office for a 9:00 a.m. telephone interview with a radio station in some place I’ve forgotten.
The interview went OK although it was one of those affairs where the “call in” audience seemed to be dominated by nursing home residents. With the drop of the telephone receiver, we headed for the Capitol and the hearing being held that a.m. in the Surface Transportation subcommittee.
The one testimony I found enjoyable was that of Phil Hazeltine who was representing Elizabeth Dole and the U.S. DOT. As special penance, Mr. Hazeltine had to go before this committee and its honored guest, Rep. James Howard, and state, “the claim that raising the speed limit to 65 mph on rural interstates will cost an additional 500 lives per year cannot be proven or disproven.”
Howard was livid and relentless in his grilling of Hazeltine. Ms. Dole was wise not to show up herself.
With lots of work to do, we left the hearing and headed for the offices of representatives who had been identified as “wafflers” on the speed limit issue. In that the list had 150 names and the vote was that afternoon, we were probably kidding ourselves, but we knew the vote would be close.
Most of our stops got the usual ‘Thank you for stopping by, I’m sure Congressman So and So will appreciate knowing your views.’
We stopped at the office of a congressman who was expected to vote against us. To our pleasant surprise, the congressman’s aide assured us we had her boss’ vote and that he was a rabid supporter of our position. We left the office with a great sense of progress and satisfaction. It was only after we turned and looked at the room number that we realized we were in the wrong office.
Later in the afternoon, we decided to watch the floor debate and headed for the House Floor. There she stood in all her shrill presence, looking like a model for a city bus hood ornament: Joan Claybrook and two or three cohorts each giving the impression their family pet had died that morning.
We went up to the House Floor Gallery, but Eric was uncomfortable with just sitting there and decided to catch a few Representatives coming onto the House Floor. For me, the realization began to set in that ten second pleas to a passing congressman, last minute visits to offices, or standing in the hallway, as Ms. Claybrook was, holding up signs that said ‘vote no’ were not going to change the outcome.
I had worked five years to reach this point and the frantic antics of an hour or two would not pass or defeat the 65 mph legislation. Those thousands of member letters to elected officials, the incessant “letters to the editor,” the education and conversion of media opinion, the hundreds of TV, radio and newspaper interviews, and the campaigns to persuade other organizations to support our position all melded at this point in time.
These were the forces that dictated the final outcome.
Much of the debate took place in a relatively empty House Chamber, but there was a lot of arm twisting going on elsewhere. If there was one moment where I felt the success of our efforts, it was during the floor debate. What I heard coming from the House Floor were our arguments, sometimes badly interpreted, but nevertheless our arguments.
We had always had advocates in Congress, but they had lacked credible arguments to support their position. We filled that gap. Our opponents had to respond to those arguments. They could not just stand there and spout platitudes.
The vote, from beginning to end, was close, but in the end the 217 to 206 total held and the 65 mph amendment overcame its greatest obstacle: Rep. James Howard and the House of Representatives.
The following month, after some posturing by President Reagan, the legislation was signed and 18 states promptly raised their rural interstate speed limits. There are now 41 states with 65 mph speed limits, several as a result of our state-level efforts. The total will go higher, and so will the speed limits.
Editor’s Note: Jim Baxter was seemingly prophetic when he typed the final paragraph above, but the writing was already on the wall in 1992 as more and more states raised their highway speed limits. In 1995, Congress fully repealed the 55 mph NMSL.
To see the additional progress that has been made with speed limits around the country, please see our speed limits by state page.