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Driving More Slowly Won’t Help Defeat Putin

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While we’re on the subject of swashbuckling billionaires, Richard Branson has lately proposed lowering speed limits, a move he says will save gasoline and thereby reduce the flow of money to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war machine. I’m all for defeating Putin, but making drivers slow down would have little impact on his oil sales.

Let’s start with the obvious: We’ve been here before. In response to the 1973 oil embargo, the U.S. Congress mandated a 55 mph limit nationwide to save gasoline, a rule that was softened in the 1980s and finally abandoned in 1995. That’s essentially the rule that Branson wants the West to adopt in response to the invasion of Ukraine.

Alas, our two-decade experiment with the 55 mph limit reduced gasoline consumption by at most 1% — probably much less — a finding that led the National Research Council to conclude dryly that the policy’s effect on fuel conservation “was not large.”

Branson has in mind expressways, but although the average car hits peak fuel efficiency at 55-60 mph, most driving takes place in cities and towns, where both speed limits and efficiency are much lower. And even if we stick to expressways, setting limits according to the performance of the average vehicle misses the fact that lots of vehicles in current production do better at higher speeds. In 2021, Car and Driver tested fuel efficiency at 75 mph. At that speed, a number of cars, all of them luxury models, exceeded their EPA highway ratings by more than 30%. So if speed limits are about fuel efficiency, maybe those able to afford, say, the Porsche Panamera (43% higher fuel efficiency at 75 mph) or the BMW X3 Competition (39% increase) should be allowed to go faster. After all, the necessary technology exists.

One might object that letting owners of fancy cars drive faster than the rest of us would be ... well unequal. That concern, ironically, takes us back to the roots of speed limits, during the late years of the Gilded Age, when automobiles were seen as the playthings of the rich.

Connecticut adopted the first statewide motor vehicle speed limits in the U.S. in 1901. But already by the 1890s many cities and towns had followed the European model by establishing their own, classing automobiles with carriages and railroads and bicycles (yes!) as vehicles that should be forced to slow down within municipal limits.

The very notion created conflict. To the elite of that era, the great speed at which cars could travel was considered an advantage — even a guaranty of safety. “Tramps might stop a horse and hold up the riders,” wrote Vogue in 1899. “But not an automobile.” The ability of the motor vehicle to escape an attacker, the magazine noted, would serve particularly to protect women traveling alone.

Not everyone agreed. In an editorial that would hardly have been out of place today, the New York Times called for mandated speed limits to combat the “irresistible temptation” to drive too fast. Nobody, wrote the paper, would buy “a slow and safe automobile.” And the wealthy were to blame: “The chauffeurs have become so reckless, and are knocking foot passengers around at such a rate, that vigorous measures are demanded for the protection of life and limb.”

Worry about collisions combined with class resentment to propel regulation of what was seen as an expensive toy. When residents of Hempstead, Long Island, decided to slow the motor vehicles that zipped through their village, a Boston newspaper sniffed that “farmers” were now telling wealthy urbanites heading to their summer houses how to operate their automobiles.

Playing to the general disapproval of motor vehicles, newspapers took glee in covering mishaps. In May 1902, the Times reported the arrest of one I. Townsend Burden, a member of the city’s fabled “four hundred,” for driving his car above the speed limit on Central Park West. The story noted with evident delight that the fancy automobile was chased down “by a bicycle policeman.”

In the ensuing decades, as automobile prices fell and ownership became common, speed limits throughout the country rose steadily. So did motor vehicle fatality rates, which peaked in 1937 at 30.8 per 100,000 population.

Four years later, everybody slowed down.

Although we tend to link concern about fuel economy to the 1973 oil embargo, the epochal event was actually World War II. Everyone knows gasoline was rationed. What’s less well remembered is that in March of 1941, when the U.S. was still technically not involved, President Franklin Roosevelt asked drivers to stay below 40 mph to conserve gasoline (and perhaps more important, rubber) for military use. Many states wrote the suggestion into law. Even in those that didn’t, most drivers honored the president’s request.

After the war, speed limits rose again, and here we are.

Which brings us back to Branson’s advice. Were Sir Richard calling for stricter speed limits to save lives, he might have a case, although even there, the evidence is complex. If he were proposing that we save fuel by imposing different speed limits on different vehicles, he’d be making an intriguing claim about the possibilities of today’s technology. If he were suggesting that we conserve massively in order to send fuel to the Ukrainian military, he’d be making an argument in the tradition of FDR.

Instead, his idea is that if we all just drive a bit slower, we’ll reduce gasoline consumption so greatly that Putin will feel the pain — a notion that, however well intended, is simply wrong.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Musk and Other Tech Billionaires Are Out of Control: Parmy Olson

• Putin Is Losing So Here’s How He’ll Make the War Worse: Andreas Kluth

• Why Covid Saw Fewer Fender-Benders But More Traffic Deaths: Mark Buchanan

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster.”

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