TWO YEARS AGO Congress ordered a study of the 55-mph speed limit, complete with recommendations on whether it should be continued. A committee of people from government and industry was assembled by the National Research Council, and this week it handed down its verdict.

On the basic question of the 55-mph limit, the committee reached a consensus: Keep it -- mostly. The speed limit, originally intended to save fuel, has saved lives as well -- 2,000 to 4,000 a year, the panel estimates -- and that is reason enough for retaining it. Good.

But the committee went on to say there was one rather large matter it couldn't agree on: Should the limit be continued on all those thousands of miles (31,500 in all) of interstate highway that are in rural areas? Why not? you might ask. Well, the number of lives saved per hours driven is smaller there. Stated bluntly, the question is this: Is one human life worth 100 years behind the wheel? That is the amount of time lost -- 850,000 man-hours of extra travel, wasted away in tiny increments by many thousands of drivers -- for each of the 500 lives the committee estimates are saved annually by keeping the limit in effect on these less-traveled interstates.

Apparently it's inevitable; ask for a traffic study and you're going to get a moral dilemma, with the potential for generating 850,000 man-hours of concentrated hooha on: how do you judge the quality of the lives saved vs. the noble, possibly lifesaving, work not done by those delayed; and is this an elitist meas discriminate against ethnics or rustics or adolescents in baseball hats and four-wheel- drive vehicles; and would people only use the time they save by driving faster to go home and watch rock videos on cable TV?

Spare us. Congress should keep the 55-mph limit in rural areas. When it takes up the matter it should consider that -- although this study was a response to restiveness among westerners who would like to drive faster -- the most recent national poll says 76 percent of the people throughout the country support the 55 mph limit. There are obviously times when a majority can tyrannize the minority, but this doesn't qualify as one. It's not that much of an imposition except on the most boisterous buckaroos. It keeps the trucks going a little slower. It avoids countless man-hours of drivers' having their teeth on edge. And if that's not enough of a socio-ethical-economic argument, it also reduces your tire wear. A Good Speed Limit

TWO YEARS AGO Congress ordered a study of the 55-mph speed limit, complete with recommendations on whether it should be continued. A committee of people from government and industry was assembled by the National Research Council, and this week it handed down its verdict.

On the basic question of the 55-mph limit, the committee reached a consensus: Keep it -- mostly. The speed limit, originally intended to save fuel, has saved lives as well -- 2,000 to 4,000 a year, the panel estimates -- and that is reason enough for retaining it. Good.

But the committee went on to say there was one rather large matter it couldn't agree on: Should the limit be continued on all those thousands of miles (31,500 in all) of interstate highway that are in rural areas? Why not? you might ask. Well, the number of lives saved per hours driven is smaller there. Stated bluntly, the question is this: Is one human life worth 100 years behind the wheel? That is the amount of time lost -- 850,000 man-hours of extra travel, wasted away in tiny increments by many thousands of drivers -- for each of the 500 lives the committee estimates are saved annually by keeping the limit in effect on these less-traveled interstates.

Apparently it's inevitable; ask for a traffic study and you're going to get a moral dilemma, with the potential for generating 850,000 man-hours of concentrated hooha on: how do you judge the quality of the lives saved vs. the noble, possibly lifesaving, work not done by those delayed; and is this an elitist meas discriminate against ethnics or rustics or adolescents in baseball hats and four-wheel- drive vehicles; and would people only use the time they save by driving faster to go home and watch rock videos on cable TV?

Spare us. Congress should keep the 55-mph limit in rural areas. When it takes up the matter it should consider that -- although this study was a response to restiveness among westerners who would like to drive faster -- the most recent national poll says 76 percent of the people throughout the country support the 55 mph limit. There are obviously times when a majority can tyrannize the minority, but this doesn't qualify as one. It's not that much of an imposition except on the most boisterous buckaroos. It keeps the trucks going a little slower. It avoids countless man-hours of drivers' having their teeth on edge. And if that's not enough of a socio-ethical-economic argument, it also reduces your tire wear.