Maryland drivers drove just a little slower last year, putting the state back into compliance with federal limits and stopping the possible loss of federal highway funds.

A total of 49.6 percent of drivers traveling in Maryland exceeded the 55 mph limit in the 12 months ending Sept. 30, according to the State Highway Administration.

Federal government standards require that no more than 50 percent of drivers exceed the limit. If the 50 percent target is exceeded, federal funds can be withheld until the state demonstrates that efforts are being made to slow drivers down.

In 1989, 52.9 percent of drivers exceeded the speed limit, putting the funding in jeopardy.

Drivers in Maryland traveled at an average speed of 58.2 mph on interstate highways in the year ending Sept. 30, 1989. Last year, they slowed down to an average speed of 57.6 mph, State Highway Administration statistics show.

The reason for the decrease is not clear. Highway officials said the random nature of the state's monitoring system -- 34 sites are checked for a 24-hour period four times each year -- can account for variations from year to year.

"It all depends on how lucky you are when you monitor," said Woodrow L. Hood III, a traffic analyst for the State Highway Administration. "If it happens to snow or rain the day you go out there, you're lucky."