ONE OF THE NUGGETS buried in the continuing resolution Congress passed in a rush just before Christmas is a provision extending the 65 mph speed limit. This allows the first 20 states that apply to raise from 55 to 65 the speed limit on rural highways that meet the standards of interstate highways. Undoubtedly, the senators who were pushing for this provision and who got a compromise through the conference committee made the argument that this was simple fairness: last April Congress allowed states to raise the limit to 65 on rural interstates, and so they should be able to do the same for roads that are just as good as interstates.

But that earlier decision was a mistake and should not be extended. It is even clearer now than it was when Congress acted last April that raising the limit to 65 costs lives. Proponents of the 65 limit then argued that people were driving fast anyway, that 65 would save time, that driving slower than 65 is tedious, especially on empty highways in the West. They brushed aside the National Academy of Sciences estimate that the 55 limit saved between 26,000 and 52,000 lives since it was enacted in the energy crisis in 1974. Now evidence from 1987 is in. The 22 states that raised their limits last spring, according to statistics tallied by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, had 450 deaths on rural interstates from May to July 1987, compared with 296 on those same roads the year before. This is not just a minor blip upward. It is a good indication that the higher speed limit means more deaths and more disabling injuries.

If the choice is between minutes and lives, what could prompt a legislator to push for sacrificing lives? Well, several members of the Florida delegation were worried that a newly opened stretch of Interstate 95 would reduce revenues on Florida's turnpike, especially if the speed limit on the latter remained 55. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky was eager to get the higher speed limit for the Blue Grass and Green River parkways in his home state. Sen. Don Nickles wanted higher speed limits for the Muskogee and Cimarron turnpikes in Oklahoma. So members of Congress chose minutes over lives because drivers find 55 tedious or because a toll-road authority is afraid its income will be cut.

This 65 bill is also a vivid illustration of Congress' practice of putting all manner of substantive legislation into a catchall appropriations bill that must be passed against a tight deadline at the end of the year. It was an end run around Reps. James Howard and William Lehman, chairmen of the House legislative and appropriations committees with jurisdiction, who were against it; it was passed without hearings, without much discussion and probably without the knowledge of many members.