Check your rearview mirror. It’s back. The controversial and widely ignored national speed limit, lifted in 1995 after an 11-year run, is again being touted in the halls of Congress as a remedy for skyrocketing gas prices. The lead proponent, Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia Republican, is sponsoring the Immediate Steps to Conserve Gasoline Act. The measure aims to curb high fuel costs by asking the federal government to take another look at reimposing a national speed limit.
Mr. Warner does not define what the national speed limit should be, but notes that when the U.S. had a national 55 mph speed limit from 1974 to 1995, an average of 167,000 barrels of oil were saved each day.
Despite the potential savings, the idea doesn’t sit well with most Americans. A Rasmussen poll released on July 7 said that 59 percent of voters oppose the proposed reinstatement of the 55 mph national speed limit, with only 34 percent supporting it.
“My own son came up to me and said, ‘Pops, this is not a good idea,’” Mr. Warner said, referring to his race-car-driving son, John W. Warner IV. “But I have to try to bring the pressure off the American people at the pumps.”
To find a suitable speed limit, Mr. Warner wrote a letter to Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman asking him to find which speed would be the most fuel-efficient, so the greatest savings for U.S. consumers can be achieved. A spokeswoman did not confirm the speed that meets Mr. Warner’s requirements, but the Energy Department’s Web site tells motorists that for each 5 mph over 60 mph they drive, they are essentially paying an additional 30 cents per gallon for gas.
When the national 55 mph speed limit was first imposed, the country was going through a fuel-conserving frenzy brought on by a 1973 oil embargo. Gas prices were through the roof, and the cars that were built in those days were genuine gas guzzlers.
There is no such embargo today, and cars are much more fuel efficient, but demand has driven gas prices to record-breaking highs. To put it in perspective, in June 1974, the average price for a gallon of gas went from about 40 cents to 55 cents a gallon. Adjusted for inflation, that’s about $1.90 and $2.70 in today’s dollars. Now the national average is around $4.02 a gallon.
Mr. Warner’s argument is that slower driving saves money and gas because cars get their highest fuel efficiency at speeds of about 55 mph. Therefore, lower speeds will put a damper on demand.
But Jim Baxter, president of the National Motorists Association, says people never paid attention to the first law. So how will it help this time around?
Government numbers seem to back him up.
The Federal Highway Administration monitored the New York State Interstate System in 1982 from April through June. A total of 83 percent of cars were clocked speeding higher than 55 mph.
The disregard was so blatant that Congress attempted to enforce the law by withholding federal highway funds to states found in noncompliance.
Qualifying for noncompliance was almost hard to do. A state had to have more than 50 percent of traffic on its interstate highway traveling at speeds exceeding 55 mph for … not one, but two successive years.
Even with the bar set so low, five states managed to qualify: Arizona, Maryland, New Hampshire, Vermont and Wyoming.
“Political gimmicks, like 55-mph national speed limits, will not improve highway safety, reduce fuel prices, or have a meaningful effect on fuel supplies,” said Mr. Baxter of the National Motorists Association in an e-mail. “All they do is generate red tape, traffic tickets, and auto insurance surcharges.”