Top Maryland highway officials, under the federal gun because of a high percentage of speeders, have quietly modified their public support of the federally imposed 55 miles per hour limit, saying there are some interstate highways where higher speeds might be suitable.

State officials, voicing a sentiment expressed in some other states, told federal highway safety examiners at an informal hearing in May that they found no correlation between traffic fatalities and the percentage of motorists exceeding the 55 mph limit -- one of the original justifications for lowering the maximum speed limit more than a decade ago.

Officials said higher limits "might be appropriate" on rural interstate highways that were designed for high speeds, according to a transcript of the hearing.

About 200 of Maryland's 381 miles in the federal interstate system are classified as rural. Altogether, there are 30,000 miles of highways in the state; 900 of them are posted at 55 mph. All the others are posted at lower speeds.

The three-hour hearing on May 22, attended only by federal and state officials and one member of the general public, was called so that Maryland officials could explain why 76.2 percent of motorists in the state in early 1985 were found exceeding the 55 mph limit -- far above the national average of 56 percent. The federal government has threatened to withhold $5.8 million in highway funds because of the high rate of speeders.

The hearing came amid a growing national clamor for relaxation of the 55 mph limit.

State legislators and even some western police officials have said the limit is unenforceable and that improved auto efficiency, new advertising for high performance cars and the disappearance of the fuel shortages of the 1970s have made the 55 mph limit unrealistic.

One Federal Highway Administration official at the Maryland hearing, David C. Oliver, an avid supporter of the limit, spoke of being "aghast" at increasing violations of the speed laws and said the national compliance program "is, in effect, becoming a national joke."

William K. Hellmann, secretary of the Maryland Department of Transportation, and Thomas Hicks, chief traffic engineer in the department's highway administration, downplayed the significance of their comments at the hearing, held at the department's headquarters near Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

"We support 55 but are willing to look at alternatives, that's the best way to put it," Hellmann said in an interview this week.

He said both Gov. Harry Hughes, who once headed the state transportation department, and State Police Supt. Wilbert T. Travers Jr. are "staunch 55 supporters" as well.

Hellmann acknowledged that official comments at the hearing seemed to reflect favoring increased speeds, but "in a backhanded way."

In the interview, he said he would favor congressional modification of the strict 55 mph limit at the national level, rather than Maryland's doing it unilaterally and jeopardizing its federal highway funds.

At least three bills are pending in the House or Senate that would allow states to raise limits to 65 or 70 mph on roads in rural areas or other areas with a low volume of traffic.

Bills and resolutions urging congressional action are pending in at least nine state legislatures, most of them in the West.

The Nevada General Assembly recently passed a resolution authorizing a mandatory seat belt law if the federal government will allow the state to raise its speed limit to 70 mph on selected roads.

Hicks said he and other Maryland highway engineers have had discussions on higher speed limits. But he denied that their comments at the hearing were triggered by federal threats to withhold road funds.

"I don't think the brass of Maryland DOT wants to say that we're in favor of 60 or 65 miles an hour on rural interstates because our noncompliance is so high," Hicks said.

"That's not the point . . . . We have thought about these things in the past, and it's just that we mentioned it in the hearing."

The state's new public position on "55," as the federally imposed National Maximum Speed Limit program is called among bureaucrats, drew cautious praise from opponents of the limit.

Jarrell F. Nowlin, head of the Maryland chapter of a nationwide organization called the Citizens Coalition for Rational Traffic Laws, said, "I see no reason why the state should not reconsider the national speed limit. A majority of Maryland citizens do not obey it, and federal blackmail should not be tolerated . . . .

"The federal government has increased our gas taxes and now threatens to withhold $5.8 million for not obeying a law that is absolutely ridiculous."

Nowlin, of Severn, a computer software engineer who was the sole member of the general public to attend the May 22 hearing, said the 55 mph limit is "boring, promotes disrespect for the law, in general does not save fuel and is not the killer of the motoring public as the feds would like us to think."

State highway officials would not say how much they would recommend raising the speed limit if further studies showed an increase to be reasonable.

In the years before "55," much of the state's interstate system, including the Maryland portion of the Capital Beltway around Washington, were posted at 60, 65 and 70 mph.

Hicks said the interstate roads were engineered for speeds "in excess of 70 miles per hour" and some in "the 80 to 90 miles per hour range."

Arguments have been made for and against the 55 mph limit since Congress enacted the across-the-board limit after the Arab oil embargo of 1973.

A study by the National Academy of Sciences that was published last November estimated the 55 mph limit saves 2,000 to 4,000 lives a year.

It projected that if the limit were raised to 60 or 65 mph on rural interstates -- 31,000 miles of the 42,500-mile system -- an additional 500 lives would be lost annually in accidents.

Opponents of "55" throw up another barrage of statistics that they say show almost the opposite: that 80 percent of fatalities and serious injuries involve cars going 40 mph or slower and that accidents are least likely to happen on high-speed divided highways, such as interstates, where all vehicles are traveling the same direction and about the same speed.

At the May 22 hearing, Hicks and Hellmann provided detailed graphs and charts showing that the number of fatal accidents on 55 mph highways in the state fluctuated between 85 and 120 each year since imposition of "55," even though the percentage of speeders exceeding 55 mph generally increased over the same period.

"We do not statistically find a correlation between 55 miles per hour and fatal accidents involving the 900 miles of 55 mile an hour roads" in Maryland, Hicks said, according to the transcript of the hearing.

At another point, Hellmann told the federal officials, "Times have changed. There's not the crunch anymore for gasoline, the long lines. And maybe our strategy has to change with it, yours and ours."

The officials, led by Federal Highway Administration's Oliver, convened the hearing to quiz Hellmann, Hicks and other state officials about Maryland's unusually high noncompliance rate on 55 mph roads.

Motorists' speeds are monitored by a series of 28 electronic counters planted in the roadbeds of highways throughout the state. Hicks and other state officials speculated that the apparently higher incidence of speeding here is not because motorists drive faster than residents of other states. Rather, Maryland applies stricter standards to its use of the monitors than other states, they said.

"I can't believe personally that people are speeding in Maryland but they're not speeding in the West and that type of thing," Hellmann told the hearing. "Anybody that thinks that I think is crazy."

Hicks said in an interview that until recently, for example, the monitors were all in "free-flowing traffic" areas and collected data "only during periods of good weather."

In recent weeks, he said, highway workers have begun collecting speed data during periods of rain and have placed temporary monitors in several congested areas -- as many other states do -- to see if the percentage of speeders decreases.

He said the data will be used in a formal hearing the state has requested before Federal Highway Adminstrator Ray Barnhart and National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator Diane K. Steed later this summer in an effort to keep the state's $5.8 million share of federal highway funds.