- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 3, 2003

I’ve always argued that the two most important reforms the Republican Congress has passed to make life here in the United States better were the capital-gains tax cut and the repeal of the federal 55 mph speed limit law.

Today almost all states have gotten rid of the “double nickel” 55 mph limits and have raised their speed limits on local and interstate highways to 65 or 75 mph. This has led to shorter commuter times for those of us who travel or commute by car and more time on the job, at work, or at our kids’ soccer games.

The opponents of higher speed limits, like Ralph Nader and Joan Claybrook and insurance companies, said it would cause 6,000 more deaths per year They said Republicans in Congress would have “blood on their hands” for their callous disregard for human life. But guess what? In every year since the speed limits were raised, death rates per mile traveled on the highways have fallen.

That’s why I was shocked to see the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has released a new, highly publicized study suggesting the increase in highway speeds allowed by the Congress in 1995 led to an increase in deaths on the highways. The study found deaths on rural highways rose 35 percent because states raised speed limits above 55 mph. There is an old saying in statistics that if you torture the data enough, you can always make it confess. This is what the Insurance Institute was forced to do to come up with a conclusion that deaths increased after speed limits were raised.

A comprehensive Cato Institute study that I co-authored came to exactly the opposite conclusion. The highways are safer, not more dangerous, than ever before. The fatality rate on the nation’s roads was the lowest in recorded history in 2001. There also were 400,000 fewer injuries on U.S. roads and highways.

In fact, if anything, it would seem unreasonably low posted speed limits are the real dangers to our health and safety. Over the last 35 years, the highway fatality rate has steadily declined, with the sole exception of the period from 1976 to 1980, which followed the imposition of the national 55 mph speed limit in 1974.

There also is no evidence states with higher speed limits saw an increase in deaths. States with 65 and 75 mph speed limits saw a decline in the fatality rate by 12 percent after speed limits were raised. Some of the sharpest declines in fatality rates were in states that raised their limit to 75 mph, the highest in the country. These include Utah, with a 27.7 percent decline, Nevada at 23.7 percent, and Arizona at 21.1 percent.

How is it that higher speed limits have not corresponded with more deaths? One reason is that cars and roads are safer than ever before, which allows us to travel faster. In the last decade, auto firms have built cars with better anti-lock breaks, better power steering, better crash protections, Moreover, what causes fatal crashes is bad driving habits: driving too slow in the left lane, talking on the cell phone and not paying attention to the road, driving tired, and worst of all drinking and driving.

Also, higher speed limits haven’t increased deaths because speeds have not increased significantly on the highways. People were already driving well over the posted limits even when we had 55 mph limits. The 55 mph speed limit law was probably the most disobeyed law in American history.

The good news is that nowadays when you’re driving 70 on a highway you can be looking out the windshield, and not the rearview mirror to worry about getting pulled over. That’s the real reason to cheer.

Stephen Moore is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.


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