Edd "Kookie" Byrnes used to do commercials for the state of Virginia extolling the 55 mile-an-hour speed limit.

His greasy pompadour firmly in place, the star of the former "77 Sunset Strip" television show would glare in that bad-boy way of his and ask: "Remember the '50s, when we all drove in the 50s?"

It appears that Virginia motorists never forgot.

For the fourth straight year, as the nation enters the summer driving season, more drivers are complying with the 55 mile-an-hour limit in Virginia (72 percent) than in any other state according to figures from the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT).

Connecticut and Wyoming are tied for the worst record (23 percent compliance), according to DOT. In general, western states have more speeders than eastern states. But the country as a whole often exceeds 55. According to DOT's figures, the average speed on roads with 55 mile-an-hour limits is 56.4. In only 11 states do more than 50 percent of the drivers comply with the 55 mile-an-hour limit.

Compliance figures are gathered by state highway engineers according to strict federal standards. Radar measurements are made every three months at random locations along highways with 55 mile-an-hour limits. In addition, monitoring devices are kept out of sight of motorists.

But it is not just in speed limit compliance that Virginia shines. The state's 1977 highway safety figures are better than the previous year in every category, and better than much of the nation.

According to DOT figures, Virginia is one of only 12 states where the "average car" is traveling slower on highways than it did two years ago.

In 1977, Virginia's average reported highway speed of 51.2 miles an hour was the lowest in the nation.

Although the statewide total of 1977 highway deaths (1,145) was greater than the 1976 total (1,020), Virginia's motor vehicle death rate of 2.7 per 100 million vehicle miles in 1976 was seventh lowest in the nation.

The state is one of only 15 to have had fewer traffic deaths in 1977 than it did in 1974. The state also boasts on the smallest percentages in the nation of drivers who exceeded 65 miles an hour in the first quarter of 1978 (1.5 percent).

Meanwhile, Virginia arrested 258,551 motorists for traffic offenses in 1977, or about 700 a day. That was 52,000 more than in 1976, despite no increase in the state's patrol force and only modest increases in money spent for radar speed monitoring.

Virginians' reported compliance with speeds limits may be big news or big laughs to anyone who has driven on an Old Dominion highway recently and has been tooted at for going "only" 70 in the passing lane.

But compliance-with-55 figures would be hard to doctor. Not only are they gathered according to federal standards, but the gathering process is occasionally monitored by federal technicians. DOT officials said Virginia's compliance figures are not only legitimate, but a model for the rest of the country.

Curiously, Virginia's senior police and traffic officials are not sure why they are doing so well.

"I don't know," said Maj. Charles Maxwell Boldin, field operations commander of the state police. "Maybe Virginians are counservative. Maybe they just don't want to spend that money (on [WORD ILLEGIBLE]"

"I don't know," said John Hanna, director of the highway safety division of the state highway department. "We like to think our police and public information programs are good. But that can't be the whole answer."

"I don't know," said Jim Robinson, a state traffic engineer who supervises speed monitoring. "Maybe we monitor better." But that could produce the opposite results.

One almost-certain reason is a Virginia law banning devices that can detect police radar. The devices are known popularly as "fuzz busters."

The "fuzz buster" law will be modified July 1. Until then, it will be illegal to have such devices anywhere in a vehicle. After July 1, they can be carried in a vehicle, but not used. Still, Virginia will remain one of only two states (Mississippi is the other) to forbid their use.

Whatever the reasons for Virginians' speed limit compliance, enforcement promises to be better than ever this summer. Virginia is one of 15 eastern states where I-05 runs that will be a part of a program called Operation Care.

Care stands for Combined Accident Reduction Effort. Under the program, police began to step up patrols on I-05 over Memorial Day weekend. The program will last all summer, with particular emphasis on Independence Day and Labor Day. Most of the money will be used for police overtime.

The thrust of Operation Care will not be tickets alone. State officials expect the program to provide assistance to motorists as often as it provides summonses.

Unlike Maryland, which has patrolled its superhighways with haywagons and 18-wheel trucks, Virginia officials plan no gimmicky enforcement techniques. "It will be routine patrols. We will simply try to be visible," said Boldin. He said special attention will be devoted to the stretch of I-95 between Washington and Richmond, where complaints of speeding are most numerous.

Why that should be puzzles state officials, because congestion along that 110-mile piece of highway actually reduces the amount of speeding there, Boldin said.

State monitoring figures indicate that more motorists speed, and more motorists drive farther above the speed limit, on two other stretches of highway: I-85 in the rural area southwest of Petersburg and I-64 east of Richmond.

As a practical matter, Boldin acknowledged that a motorist can drive a few miles an hour above posted speeds in Virginia without running a great risk of a ticket.

But other officials noted that Virginia's traffic violation conviction rate is among the highest in the nation. They added that complaints of "kangaroo court justice" for speeders are among the fewest in the nation. "People just tend to pay up," said Hanna.

Perhaps that is because Virginia's speeding penalties (a fine of not more than $100 and no jail term, regardless of how far over the limit one goes) are a bargain compared with most other states. In Georgia, speeders can spend a year in jail. In Missouri, they can be fined $1,000.

"We are totally in agreement with 55 miles an hour in this office," said Hanna. "We have conscientiously made it work. It is the law. It is the proper thing to do. It is the fair thing to do.

"As long as speeding is defined as antisocial behavior, it'll work. We shouldn't accept it (speeding) any more than we accept bank robbery."