Allow me to repeat an axiom: Figures don't lie, but liars can figure. This comes to mind every time I'm reminded of the recent flap about the new 65 mph speed limit. You will recall that most western states adopted the increased interstate velocity after Congress finally realized that the old double-nickel was unenforceable. In December we were treated to headlines that screamed about highway deaths increasing 50 percent on interstates with the 65 mph limit, based on data released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Then came the deafening din from the safetyniks.

Many who supported the increase were taken aback. It made no sense. Years of empirical observation had certainly convinced me that 65 mph was a perfectly safe speed for the American interstate environment. It was the speed many drivers were already driving on interstates despite the 55 mph signs.

Kent Milton, a spokesman for the California Highway Patrol, says speeds on interstates in California are about the same now as they were before: "Most of the traffic was running 63-64 mph before the increase was passed. Now they're doing 65. Things have hardly changed at all." The California Highway Patrol supported the 65 mph limit, Milton said, "because the public had already made its decision. We had 90 percent noncompliance, and we knew the increase would change very little in terms of accidents."

There was something else about the NHTSA data that seemed strange -- it was released immediately prior to a congressional committee vote on extending the 65 mph limit to other roads. Even at NHTSA, people were nervous about the figures. A press release said the data should be treated with caution. "It's way too early to draw any long-term conclusions," said NHTSA Administrator Diane Steed, noting that the figures included data covering only the first three months after the 65 mph limit was legalized on April 2 last year. Indeed, it seemed much too early to release any figures at all.

Steed pointed out that the figures could have been skewed by unknowns, including actual speeds being driven and increases in the number of cars on the highways. Furthermore, a careful look at the numbers showed they were laced with anomalies.

For example, five states with the new 65 mph limits -- West Virginia, Oklahoma, Montana, Washington and Colorado -- recorded decreases in accidents. Moreover, a number of low- population states had small numerical increases that translated into awesome statistical bulges. For instance, North Dakota and Nebraska each had three fatal accidents in the period measured versus a single fatal accident each during the same period the year before. Technically, that translated into 200 percent increases. Statistically, the figures were too small to have any validity. A similar distortion -- a 600 percent increase -- occurred in South Dakota (seven deaths versus one), where the numbers could be traced to a pair of multi-death accidents.

Jim Baxter, the scholarly head of Citizens for Rational Traffic Laws, a feisty little lobbying organization in favor of the 65 mph limit, is predictably upset about the figures released by NHTSA. "To call this analysis flawed would be the height of understatement," he said. "A more appropriate description would be deliberate deception."

Baxter said that basic statistical factors such as increased traffic mileage, abnormal weather, unusually high numbers of deaths in single accidents, and crashes occurring on ramps rather than roadways were ignored or distorted in the findings. The figures were further muddied, he said, because eight states, including Texas, did not approve the 65 mph limit until late May or early June. That meant that as many as a third of the fatality increases that seemed to be pointing a warning finger at the 65 mph limit were recorded when the limit was still 55 mph.

The NHTSA report also included fatalities from seven states that retained the 55 mph limit. Their interstate death toll was reported to have risen only 10 percent. But again, the numbers did not offer clear insight because Alaska was included among the seven even though it has no interstate highways. (More than a thousand miles of Alaskan roads are designated rural interstate roads for funding purposes, but they are not limited-access highways.) Baxter says that if the Alaska statistics are removed from the list, the six remaining states move from a 10 percent increase in deaths to 42 percent -- nearly equal to the figures for states with the 65 mph limit!

Why did such lousy numbers get reported at all? Because Rep. James J. Howard (D-N.J.) wanted them released in December, when a joint House-Senate conference subcommittee was considering increasing the speed limit on another 6,000 miles of highways that met interstate safety standards. Howard, chairman of the Public Works and Transportation Committee, is a strong supporter of the 55 mph limit. (One wonders if his zeal for lower limits is based on drives along the New Jersey Turnpike, where speeds are among the fastest in the nation.) Pressure from Howard apparently forced NHTSA to cobble together the numbers that at first glance appeared to discredit the 65 mph limit.

Given the quality of those statistics, it's clear no one can really know yet if the new speed limit is better or worse. There has not been a sufficient passage of time to measure anything properly. We'll need to wait until we have at least a year's worth of data from all 38 states that have adopted the increase.

Until then, allow me to note a few other statistics that were ignored when the hubbub arose over NHTSA's figures: While the National Safety Council bemoaned the 65 mph limit and predicted that 450 to 550 people would die on the nation's highways during the Christmas holidays, the figure turned out to be a relatively modest 269. Deaths were also down over the Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day weekends. ::