On Jan. 2, 1974, the Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act was signed into law, establishing 55 mph as the nation's maximum legal highway speed. The man who signed that embarrassing law -- embarrassing for its internationally observable paternalism -- did not drive a car.

His office was a 30-second walk from his living quarters. When he traveled, he flew. The men who continue to hymn praise for the 55 mph speed limit are generally in the same blessed condition. They are generally governors who would lose federal grants if they were to give this law its condign Bronx cheer. Other advocates are consumerists -- that is to say, people who are very censorious toward consuming and downright hostile toward producing. There is now powerful evidence attesting to the other uselessness of this law, but before I make bold to unveil it, allow me a word on that peculiar Darwinian mishpa, the American consumerist.

He is the inhabitant of a gloom-laden realm. There the poor Homo sap is incessantly menaced by such terrors as white bread, sugar, sugar substitutes, eggs, egg substitutes, drinking water, drinking water substitutes.

The consumerist views the automobile with a suspicious eye; to some consumerists it remains a flivver. When the speed limit was regulated at 55 mph, they all allowed themselves a rare moment of joy. True, regulation is not prohibition; but in our licentious age, regulation is often the poor substitute for which the upright consumerist must settle. Accordingly, the consumerists ardently embraced the 55 mph limit, assuring the plain folk of the republic that it was a significant fuel-conservation measure and one that would lead to a major reduction in traffic accidents and deaths.

At first only instinctive libertarians felt uneasy. Yet as the years passed, larger numbers of plain folk protested by simply disregarding the law -- not the most satisfactory form of democratic discourse, but an eloquent one nonetheless. Consumerists in and around government continued to declare that the 55 mph limit saved lives and fuel. Vast appropriations were heaved up to enforce the law. Yet as many as 90 percent of America's drivers, finding themselves on the world's best and most expensive highways, refused to crawl along at 55 mph.

Now Road & Track magazine, perhaps the most respected automobile magazine in the country, has in its May issue assayed the data on this law and discovered that "the law's greatest possible savings amount to less than one-half of 1 percent of the total energy requirements" for the nation. Placed next to the inconvenience and expense of enforcing the 55 mph limit, our fuel savings are trivial.

Not only that, but the 55 mph limit does not save lives. Improved highways, the jugging of drunks, increased use of radial tires, better safety belts, less nocturnal driving and increased driver awareness saves lives. Moreover, the 55 mph limit might actually be dangerous, for, according to Road & Track, "it has severely restricted application of the best-known technique for setting highway speeds for maximum safety, replacing it with an arbitrary speed that ignores local needs and conditions." Highway-safety experts have over the past 25 years developed a techique for establishing a particular roadway's safest speed. The formula is too complicated to describe here, but it is suggestive to note that a car traveling at this speed "is 5-6 times less likely to crash than one driving 5-10 mph below" the speed.

Now, I know all of this sounds quite shocking. And doubtless the consumerists will soon be raising dark questions about my hidden motives. Do I lust for carnage on our highways? Am I in league with Detroit or Saudi Arabia? I respond by urging that you read the May issue of Road & Track and decide for yourself.