- The Washington Times - Monday, July 28, 2008

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.”

Some groups, though, are heralding the law.

The American Trucking Association, which represents 37,000 trucking companies, has been asking for a national speed limit for more than two years. The association’s desired limit is 65 mph, but members might be willing to go lower, said association spokesman Clayton Boyce. The association is also asking for legislation that requires devices to be installed on all big rigs so that trucks won’t be able to exceed 65 mph, even if drivers want to.

“The idea is to slow down drivers - especially truckers - for safety, environmental and financial reasons,” Mr. Boyce said. The association thinks such a device would result in members’ fuel consumption dropping 27 percent.

However, to Larry Daniel, spokesman for America’s Independent Truckers’ Association, it doesn’t matter how much fuel is being saved. Part of what makes an independent trucker’s business successful is his ability to move cargo - and to move it fast.

“We got enough regulation in the industry,” Mr. Daniel said. “We don’t need the government to step into our business and cause us more undue hardship.”

He said big trucking companies, such as those that the American Trucking Association represents, have a vested interest in keeping all trucks at 65 mph. The bigger companies want to stay at 65 mph because the trucks are at peak fuel efficiency at that speed, he said. But independents are not always interested in fuel efficiency. They’re interested in “dropping their loads off quicker than the next guy.”

“If all the bigger companies want to drive at 65 [mph], fine,” he said. “We’ll zip right by them.”

High-speed-racing 16-wheelers barreling down on each other was just the motivation that inspired Tim Castleman to start his foundation, the Drive 55 Conservation Project. He asks drivers to think about what they are doing when they speed. When drivers go faster than 55 mph, they’re only hurting themselves, he said.

On his Web site, www.drive55.org, he provides plenty of data dealing with safety and environmental motivations on why drivers should coast at 55 mph. But if anything should motivate drivers to slow down, it should be their finances, Mr. Castleman said.

He said the difference between driving 55 mph and 80 mph on a 30-mile trip is only 10 minutes in terms of time. But in terms of cost, the 80-mph drive costs $3.20 more in gasoline. Moreover, if a 80-mph trip is made every day throughout a year, the driver will spend more than $1,100.

This kind of cost inspired Rep. Jackie Speier, California Democrat, to propose her first bill since she took the seat of the late Rep. Tom Lantos in April. The Gasoline Savings and Speed Limit Reduction Act would set the national speed limit at 60 mph. The bill also would increase the limit to 65 mph on less-populated stretches of highway.

“This is something we can do that takes very little effort to provide relief,” she said.

Mrs. Speier said that cutting back on gas consumption is as much about national security as it is about financial savings. When the original law went into effect in 1974, she said, the U.S. was importing about 30 percent of its oil, compared with the nearly 70 percent it imports today. This reliance, she said, puts the U.S. at a disadvantage.

“There is no need to wait for OPEC or the oil companies to help us out,” she said. “Every driver can effect change simply by easing up on their right foot.”

Mrs. Speier, whose first husband was killed in a car accident, also drew attention to a National Academy of Sciences study that found the 55-mph limit saved between 2,000 and 4,000 lives annually.

But Mr. Baxter of the National Motorists Association, doesn’t believe those numbers. He said many of the automotive deaths took place on roads and streets that had speed limits that were lower than 55 mph. Even some of those accidents that were on roads with a speed limit greater than 55 mph, were often in no way related to speed.

Mrs. Speier and Mr. Warner are scheduled to meet next week to discuss both bills.

“The phones have been ringing off the hook,” Mr. Warner said when asked about the response to his bill. “Something had to be done. So I did it.”

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