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Laboratories of Democracy

Sunday, September 1, 1996

In 1974, in the wake of the OPEC oil embargo, the federal government imposed the 55 mile-per-hour "National Maximum Speed Limit" (NMSL) on American motorists to conserve gas. But long after the fuel crisis had abated, the federal speed limit remained, backed by advocates who touted its supposed safety benefits. Even as these benefits were soon cast into doubt and drivers' compliance with the law began to erode, its supporters continued to lobby for the federal maximum. And for more than 20 years, Congress followed their lead. The Democratic leadership of the Congress blocked all efforts to overturn the national speed limit.

Congress has finally repealed a law that defied popular will and common sense - the federal speed limit

        Then last year, with their robust commitment to limiting government, the newly elected House and Senate freshmen pushed for a repeal of the federal speed limit. In the fall of 1995, despite the resistance of old-guard Republicans Bud Shuster and John Chafee, chairmen of the key committees in the House and Senate, legislation repealing the national speed limit passed both chambers by chasmic margins -- 419-7 in the House, by voice vote in the Senate. On November 28, 1995, President Clinton reluctantly signed the legislation. The endurance of this anachronism is but one sign of Washington's bureaucratic paternalism; its demise, however, may augur a new era of limits on federal authority.

        The federal maximum was not, technically, mandatory. It was enforced through the power of the purse -- federal highway funds were withheld from states refusing to post the new limit. Naturally, every state capitulated. Building on legislation in 1987 and 1991 that allowed states to raise the limit to 65 m.p.h. on rural interstates and freeways designed for high speeds, the repeal removes the threat of reduced funding, freeing all states to set their own speed limits.

        Since the repeal, more than 20 states have raised their limits, including seven within a week of the effective date of the repeal. Four of those states -- Oklahoma, Wyoming, Nevada, and Arizona -- posted a top speed of 75 m.p.h., while Montana eliminated its daytime speed limit for passenger vehicles, reverting to its pre-1974 law requiring drivers to maintain a "reasonable and prudent speed."

        Once liberated, state legislatures ushered in these increases by lopsided margins. Missouri's House and Senate, for example, voted by 122-34 and 28-2, respectively, to raise the maximum limit to 70 m.p.h. Idaho's lower and upper chambers voted to increase limits by 56-12 and 28-7, respectively. Higher speed limits were voted down in Ohio, Connecticut, Kentucky, Virginia, and Louisiana. That's the beauty of a federal system. States can now set their own speed limits after assessing local conditions; some will increase their limits and some will not.

        The swift actions of these legislators were bolstered by the support of motorist advocates. "We believe that the states will do as good a job, or even a better job, at setting and enforcing the limits," says Bill Jackman, a spokesman for the American Automobile Association. "In many states the federal limits were really disdained. . . . All of the state departments of transportation are responsible institutions with respectable people working in them. We trust them to do their jobs well." With 39 million members nationwide, AAA represents the interests of almost a quarter of all licensed drivers.

        State traffic engineers and highway patrolmen, whose reputations depend on drivers' safety, added their applause. "Putting the decision up to the individual states was a good idea," says Ken Howes of the Florida Highway Patrol. "Our Florida Department of Transportation has done excellent research on what speeds are appropriate. We are very comfortable in Florida if a speed is raised, because we know it is not done haphazardly." Adds P.D. Kiser, the chief traffic engineer at the Nevada Department of Transportation: "The repeal was way overdue; the 55 m.p.h. speed limit was an experiment that failed miserably."

Easy Riding

        Patrolmen and engineers supported the repeal because it permits states to set more reasonable and safe speed limits. According to traffic engineers, the proper method of determining speed limits is to measure the speed of traffic under ideal conditions. The limit should be posted at the speed at or below which 85 percent of traffic is traveling. In effect, drivers set the speed limit. What engineers call "the 85th percentile speed" -- the proper speed limit -- is the safest speed to travel. "People who drive at the 85th percentile speed are least likely to be in motor vehicle crashes," explains engineer Tom Hicks, of the Maryland State Highway Administration. "It's the people who drive much slower or faster who are most at risk."

        Unreasonably low speed limits exacerbate the risk posed by these slower and faster drivers. Says Alan Soltani, the chief traffic engineer at the Oklahoma DOT, "When the 85th percentile speed was at 75 and the speed limit was set at 55, drivers weren't comfortable-some drove at 55, some at 65, some at 75. There was so much variance that accidents increased." When the limit is raised to its proper level, the evidence shows, these dangerous variances in speed start to disappear. Hicks reports that ever since Maryland increased the limit on some roads to 65 m.p.h., "We're seeing more tightening of speeds; the slower drivers are catching up while the faster drivers are slowing down."

        On many highways, the federally mandated 55 and 65 m.p.h. speed limits were unreasonably low -- often 5 or 10, and sometimes 15 m.p.h. below the 85th percentile speed. In Minnesota, engineers report, the 85th percentile speeds were 73 m.p.h. on rural interstates and 69 m.p.h. on urban interstates. In Montana, the 85th percentile speed was 72 m.p.h. In Oklahoma, it was 75. Drivers in essence voted for repeal with their feet -- by pressing down on the accelerator.

        Such rampant disregard for the law made the situation even more dangerous. Says Maryland's Hicks, "There are many traffic engineers, myself included, who think that the 55 m.p.h. speed limit caused a degradation of respect for traffic laws and contributed to what we call aggressive driving. For the last five years, everybody has been going 15 to 20 m.p.h. over the speed limit, including the police. It's terribly harmful to have a law and not enforce it."

        Efforts to enforce unreasonably low speed limits also unduly influence the effectiveness of police. In 1978, Congress started requiring the states to certify drivers' compliance with the 55 m.p.h. limit or face cuts in their federal highway funds. So highway patrolmen were told to enforce a law that the majority of motorists were breaking and that threatened rather than improved safety.

        Indeed, in a 1984 study of the effects of the 55 m.p.h. speed limit, the National Research Council found that 29 percent of highway patrol hours were devoted to rural interstates, where only 9 percent of traffic fatalities occurred. This means more dangerous roads -- undivided country highways, high-speed two-lane roads, and highways running through congested commercial areas -- received less attention.

        Charles Lave, an economist at the University of California at Irvine specializing in traffic issues, says that researchers must take into account these changes in police and driver behavior by studying overall fatality rates instead of just rates on the interstates. In his 1992 study, "Did the 65 m.p.h. Speed Limit Save Lives?" he found that the stepped-up enforcement of the 55 m.p.h. speed limit did reduce fatalities on interstates after the national limit was enacted. But, he says, the reduction was illusory. To avoid the extra policing of the interstates, drivers switched to the scenic but more dangerous country roads, thus decreasing both traffic and fatalities on interstates.

        So by requiring states to prove they were enforcing the 55 m.p.h. speed limit, the federal legislation effectively reduced patrol presence on non-interstates while increasing the traffic on these roadways. This substantially endangered safety. Says Jackman of AAA, "People move off and onto interstates depending on the speed; if the speed limit is only 55 or 65, they will move onto a country road that will get them there just as fast. The problem there is that the fatality rate is three times higher when you get off the interstates. Interstates are the safest highways we have." Now that the federal limit has been repealed, states can post more realistic limits that will attract drivers to the safer interstates.

Straw Men

        The repeal of the federal mandate encourages better use of police resources, greater respect for the law, and safer roads. If one adds overwhelming support from motorists, the state legislatures, the highway patrol, and state departments of transportation, the case for repeal seems airtight. So why the opposition?

        "Well, they're wrong," scoffs Judie Stone, the president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, an organization funded by insurance companies. "I am not an engineer, but it is just common sense. . . . It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that if you raise speed limits, speeds go up." Higher speeds, Stone contends, mean greater chances of crashing.

        "Changes like these that increase the severity of injuries mean higher health-care costs, more expensive insurance claims, and higher premiums for everyone," adds Richard Retting, the senior transportation engineer at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

        These arguments held sway in Congress for 20 years. Safety advocates also often point to statistics that indicate fatalities rose 30 percent in 1987 on roads where the speed limit was increased to 65 m.p.h. This proves, they say, that raising the speed limit costs lives. But Lave's study concluded otherwise.

        By concentrating solely on the number of interstate fatalities, Lave says, opponents of repeal fail to account for the safety benefits of setting more reasonable speed limits: police allocate their resources more efficiently and drivers switch to the less dangerous interstates. These benefits can only be accounted for by studying overall fatality rates. Lave calculated that from 1986-88, overall statewide fatality rates actually fell by 3.4 to 5.1 percent in the 40 states that adopted the new 65 m.p.h. maximum.

        Moreover, engineering studies by Samuel Tignor, Davey Warren, and Martin Parker for the Federal Highway Administration show that average speeds increase negligibly when highway speed limits are raised. Indeed, Tignor and Warren write, "Raising the speed limit by various amounts up to 15 m.p.h. has little or no effect on speeds over a broad range of road types and speed levels."

        This would seem to indicate, as traffic engineers like to say, that motorists tend to ignore posted limits, instead picking a speed at which they feel comfortable. But advocates like Retting and Stone see it differently. "If you let drivers set a speed that is reasonable and prudent, as Montana has," Retting says, "they can't do it." Adds Stone, "Yes, it's true that people were exceeding 55 before, but at least they were staying below 65. Now, with states raising limits to 70 and 75 m.p.h., the percentage of drivers exceeding 70 is going up, average speeds are going up. In Kansas and Missouri, fatalities have gone up."

        True, April 1996 traffic fatalities in Kansas and Missouri did increase 20 and 28 percent, respectively, from the same period last year. But in Missouri, fatalities in May dropped by one from last year. And in Kansas, fatalities rose from 25 in April 1995 (before repeal) to 30 in April 1996 -- but in April 1994, Kansas highways claimed 37 lives under the former speed limit. Since the repeal of the federal limit, troopers and engineers in California, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Texas report that average speeds have not increased significantly -- 1 to 2 m.p.h. in most states -- and fatalities have actually decreased in some states. Says Kiser of the Nevada DOT: "I think the only thing that really changed out there was the numbers on the signs."

        To drivers, though, the changes are far more significant. Under the old federal limits, drivers seldom knew how far over the speed limit they could travel without receiving a ticket. Now, report many patrolmen, the limit is higher but enforcement is stricter. Says Howes of the Florida Highway Patrol, "70 is 70 is 70." Patrolmen can concentrate on ticketing the dangerous drivers -- those traveling over the highway's design speed -- and law-abiding citizens can relax and drive.

        "[The police and I] are not adversarial anymore," says Raymond Kasicki, an independent truck owner-operator in Ohio. "Before you looked at them as someone who was out to get you. Now we're both looking for the same thing: people who are driving dangerously."

The Bureaucratic Disposition

        It is easy to dismiss the repeal of the federal speed limit as token legislation, more of a statement of principle than legislation that improves our standard of living. The benefits, however, are palpable. In the Western states, motorists may drive hundreds of miles on flat roads with no other cars in sight. Why shouldn't they be allowed to pick a speed at which they feel comfortable? Why shouldn't the police be allowed to distribute their resources as they see fit? Why shouldn't state departments of transportation, working with the highway patrol, be allowed to set the speed limit according to local conditions? The repeal allows all of this to happen.

        More importantly, the repeal of the national speed limit may signal new attitudes in Washington. The law was a typical Washingtonian notion: a one-size-fits-all rule that usurped state responsibility. Restoring the states' authority on this issue means trusting them to form safe and responsible policies. Says Soltani of Oklahoma, "I strongly believe that there is no relationship between higher speed limits and higher fatalities. If I did not believe that, I would not have recommended [speed limit increases] to the legislature."

        And if we can trust the states in this area, why not others? The repeal recognizes two principles at the core of any argument for limiting the federal government: that federal legislation can be extremely inflexible, and that states will seek to protect their citizens. This renewed faith in local officials and doubts about the wisdom of federal solutions may be a bellwether of further devolution.

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