Congress may soon liberate millions of American drivers who are tired of creeping along at 55 mph on roads designed for 65 mph or more.
Despite continued whining by self-appointed "safety advocates" that higher speeds will increase the carnage on U.S. highways, a measure already has passed the Senate to repeal the National Maximum Speed Limit (NMSL), a bureaucratic nightmare that for years has made it illegal for drivers to exceed the "double nickel", or 55 mph, anywhere in the country.
The law, passed in 1974, deprived states of their historic right to set speed limits within their own borders, based on their particular needs and conditions. Especially upset were drivers in Nevada, which for years had no posted speed limit, and other Western states with thousands of miles of lonely roads connecting sparsely populated areas.
Hailed as a fuel-saving measure during the Carter administration's "energy crisis," the double nickel should have died when President Reagan deregulated the energy industry in 1981 and the long lines disappeared at U.S. service stations.
Faced with the loss of some of their powers, federal transportation bureaucrats changed tactics and decided that NMSL was really a highway safety measure. So Congress kept the double nickel. In the years following, America's drivers voted with their feet and made the double nickel one of the most widely ignored federal laws ever enacted.
Bowing to public demand, Congress grudgingly decided in 1987 to let states raise the limit to 65 mph ¾ but only on rural interstates. Thousands more people would die because of the higher speed limit, the "safety advocates" predicted.
Today, as Congress considers repealing NMSL, we hear the same dire predictions. Richard Martinez, President Clinton's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration head, claims the double nickel saves lives, while Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety's Jacqueline Gillan predicts "more than 5,000 additional deaths and millions more injuries on our highways."
Gillan's widely reported prediction shows how hocus-pocus statistics can be used to create unjustified public fears in order to protect the power and turf of entrenched Washington bureaucrats.
In fact, fewer people died on rural interstates after 1987 than before, according to Charles Lave, chairman of the University of California's economics department, in a study for the American Automobile Association's Traffic Safety Foundation and the University of California Transportation Center.
Adds Jim Baxter, president of the National Motorists Association: "If you look at the 65 mph highways now, there are about 2,500 fatalities on them each year. There were about 2,700 each year before 65 mph. What Gillan is suggesting is that we will have a doubling or tripling of fatalities on those highways. That's just not going to happen."
Baxter cites a 1992 study for the U.S. Department of Transportation that found the accident rate went up 5.4 percent in places where speed limits were lowered and fell 6.7 percent where they were raised. "We expect improved safety, not diminished safety" if states set speed limits, he says.
If the House and Senate agree on repealing NMSL ¾ and it is not vetoed by President Clinton ¾ some states undoubtedly will raise their speed limits. Other states won't. In both cases, America's drivers will, for the first time in 20 years, be able to watch the road ahead for safety traps instead of radar traps.