The Department of Transportation is considering a proposal by California officials to permit speed limits in excess of 55 mph on selected low-traffic, well-designed highways.
Raymond A. Peck Jr., chief of DOT's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said "we're not foreclosing any option" in considering possible changes in the 55 mph limit.
However, he noted, the new federal highway act requires a one-year study by the National Academy of Sciences on benefits of the 55 mph limit, and Peck said he expects any legislative proposals "to await the outcome of the study."
Congress imposed the limit as an energy-saving measure in 1974 during a gasoline shortage. It subsequently became clear that lower speeds also resulted in a dramatic drop in highway fatalities, and Congress strengthened the law by requiring governors to certify that at least half of vehicles in their states obey the limit.
The penalty is a loss of some federal highway funds earmarked for safety programs.
Peck said last Friday that at least two states and possibly four or five may be subject to the penalty when records for 1982 have been tabulated. He would not say which states are in trouble, but they are believed to be in the West, where the outcry against the 55 mph limit has been the loudest.
Removal of the limit was a plank in the Republican platform in 1980, but Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis' support of that plank was lukewarm at best.
He said at his confirmation hearing that perhaps states should decide for themselves, and no Reagan administration proposal on the subject has ever been sent to Congress.
Peck disclosed the California proposal, and the fact that his agency is considering it, in an interview with Newhouse News Service. He said in a subsequent interview that "some roads can safely take a higher speed limit . . . . If I can remove the safety issue, I have no problem looking at it."
The savings in gasoline would not be as great today as in 1974, he said, because newer cars present much less resistance to the wind and thus require less fuel to operate.
Further, he said, there is a safety issue in "greater differential speed," which occurs when some drivers are obeying a lower limit but many others are exceeding it.
"What saves lives and energy is not the law," Peck said, "but people driving slower."