Reinstating “55,” Are They Crazy?!

By James Baxter, NMA President

The same forces that resisted the use of fire many thousands of years ago are still with us, only now they are advocating the return of the national maximum speed limit of 55 miles per hour.

Anyone who endured the last 22 year long “experiment” with the “folly of 55” knows that this proposal goes beyond being absurd.

The only likely beneficiaries are insurance companies (ticket surcharges), local governments that live off speed traps, P.R. firms (the genius creators of public service ads like “Save Gas Save Lives, Drive 55”) and perhaps the radar detector industry. In return, the driving public is treated to aggravation, maddening traffic flow, tickets, bloated insurance premiums, and billions of hours of lost time.

As in 1973, the justification for a snail’s pace speed limit on major highways is that it will save gasoline (and now reduce global warming).

It didn’t work then and it won’t work now. The reasons are many.

For starters only two percent of the four million miles of streets, roads and highways in the US have speed limits in excess of 55 miles per hour (approximate numbers). Of those there are many that suffer congestion and construction on a regular basis such that traffic is lucky to maintain a 40 MPH pace, let alone 55 miles per hour.

It’s true that our Interstate system carries about one third of our daily traffic volume, but here too congestion, construction, and bad weather frequently limits traffic to sub 55 speeds. In many urban areas the Interstates are already posted at 55. Granted, when conditions allow the actual speeds might be 70 or 75 MPH, but clearly the speed limit is not the controlling factor.

That brings us to point #2, public compliance.

After 22 years of propaganda, millions of tickets, and billions in insurance surcharges, actual motorist compliance on Interstate type highways ranged between five and ten percent. Those in compliance were typically mechanically unable to exceed 55.

Did it save fuel? In 1984, in what started out to be a promotional “study” of the “Benefits of the 55 MPH National Maximum Speed Limit” the Transportation Research Board (Part of the National Academy of Science) determined that keeping the 55 MPH speed limit, versus allowing the states to raise the limit to 65 MPH, would result in a 0.18 percent (less than two tenths of one percent) fuel savings (Source: TRB Report, 55: A Decade of Experience; page 176)

This is not an amount that will devastate the oil economy of the Middle East. The same study did determine that the 55 MPH national speed limit was wasting approximately one billion man hours a year (page 123). This did not include state trooper man hours being burned up enforcing an arbitrary speed limit on the safest highways in the nation.

Along with miss allocating enforcement resources, the federal law forced the states to play games with their highway monitoring data, gaming the numbers so it appeared that traffic was moving slower than it really was. The states were supposed to maintain 50 percent compliance with the federal limit, they couldn’t come close, at least not honestly.

Safety? Today the national and the interstate highway fatality rate is far lower than at any time during the “55 era.” In fact, the last time the fatality rate increased from year to year was in the mid 1970’s when compliance and enforcement were at their highest levels (see chart below).

High fuel costs are certainly a burden. As individuals we can drive less, use more fuel efficient vehicles, and even drive slower, if we wish. But no sane person should wish another 55 MPH speed limit on the country. We already have a dysfunctional aviation system, let’s not allow the same thing to happen to our highways.

Source: NHTSA 2006 Traffic Facts (page 16)

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