10th Anniversary of the Repeal of the 55 NMSL

December 2005

Motorists across the nation can celebrate the Tenth Anniversary of the repeal of the National Maximum Speed Limit (NMSL) by driving at safe, legal speeds well above 55 mph. National legislation repealing the decades-old NMSL was signed into law on December 8, 1995.

The NMSL, a product of the Nixon administration, was implemented in response to the OPEC oil embargo. After the embargo was lifted, a coalition of groups appeared in support of the lower limit as a “life-saving measure.” It was because of such arguments that Congress passed legislation making the 55-mph National Maximum Speed Limit permanent in 1975.

The Citizens Coalition for Rational Traffic Laws (CCRTL), which later became the National Motorists Association (NMA), was founded seven years later for the express purpose of repealing the NMSL. As public compliance shrank, Congressional supporters of the NMSL authorized a National Academy of Science study to document the benefits of the national limit. This study radically altered the dynamics of the public’s discussion of the limit.

The NMA demanded that costs, as well as benefits, be part of any evaluation of this law. The debate was dragged into the public and political arenas and the support and rationalizations for the 55-mph NMSL started to show serious flaws. Claims of lives saved were proven largely invalid. The fact that non-compliance was much greater than the government was admitting also came to light. Public opinion began to shift, and it became socially and politically acceptable to at least talk about higher speed limits.

During this discourse, the NMA became the clear primary opponent of the NMSL. Our organization encouraged sympathetic members of Congress to help us undo the damage of 55-mph limit. Ultimately, in 1987, despite predictions of thousands of additional highway fatalities, Congress decided to allow states to raise Interstate and expressway speed limits to 65 mph.

By the early 1990s, these doom and gloom scenarios were proven false. All but a few states had opted to raise their speed limits, while fatality rates declined nationwide. Following this limited victory, the NMA continued to push for a full repeal of the NMSL. Through a little serendipity and a lot of hard work, Congress passed and President Clinton signed legislation that included a provision repealing the NMSL in its entirety.

Again, opponents of the repeal claimed that without a national speed limit fatalities would increase by over 6,000 victims in the first year alone. Instead, many states raised limits to 70 or 75 mph, expanded 65-mph speed limits to other roads, and the number of fatalities actually declined. During the past ten years since that time, the fatality rate has continued to decline, despite higher speed limits and higher driving speeds. This clearly demonstrated that the 22-year-long experiment with an arbitrary national speed limit served no positive purpose. It wasted time, resources, and billions of dollars while neither reducing fuel consumption nor improving highway safety.