NEVADA GOV. Robert List signed a bill last week that comes close to abolishing the 55 mph speed limit on his state highways. It does this by limiting the penalty imposed for speeding at less than 70 mph to a $5 "energy wasting" fine. A few days later, Gov. List signed a legislative resolution urging Congress to do away completely with the national speed limit because, among other things, there is no "scientifically credible evidence" that the limit helps conserve gasoline.
At first glance, both of these actions seem reckless.The first flies in the face of the federal law that cuts off highway funds for states authorizing speed limits above 55.
The second sits very oddly with the fact that most vehicles use less gas at 55 than at 65 mph. But logic has little to do with the opposition to the federal speed limit, and these two actions are part of a major effort to get that fund cutoff law repealed.
No one, of course, can document with mathemtical precision the amount of gasoline or the number of lives saved since the speed limit went into effect in 1974. But the Department of Transportation estimates the lower speeds on the highways save about 3.4 billion gallons of gasoline and at least 4,000 lives each year. Even if these estimates were twice too high, and we don't think they are, the numbers are worth serious contemplation.
The arguments made against them are that cars and highways are safer now than they were before 1974, that the new engines produce better gas mileage, and that people don't obey the 55 mph limit anyway. All of these are true -- but only in part so.
The engineering of cars and highways is better, and so they are safer. But the chance of someone's being killed when a small car crashes at a high speed is greater than it is when a big, pre-1974 car crashes at the same speed. The new engines do get better gas mileage, but they still yield more miles per gallon at 55 than at 65 mph. While most people don't obey the 55 mph limit precisely, many of them didn't obey the limit when it was 65 or 70. The fact is that average speeds -- on the interstate highways and on other primary highways -- are down from 6 to 10 percent since the federal government imposed the national speed limit.
While it is understandable that the drive to repeal this speed limit should have its greatest support in the West -- Nevada is only one of about 10 states working actively against it -- it is also the western states, with the great open spaces and the temptation to drive fast, where accident rates are higher. Congress shouldn't be taken in by their appel to states' rights.