The High Cost of the 55 MPH Speed Limit


The High Cost of the 55 MPH Speed Limit

September 9, 1986 10 min read Download Report
Milton R.
Senior Visiting Fellow

(Archived document, may contain errors)

532 5 i THE,.HlGH COST OF THE 55 MPH SPEED LIMIT INTRODUCTION Part of America's summer ritual for the past dozen years has been the crescendo of complaints about the the 55 mile per hour speed limit, technically called the National Maximum Speed Law (NMSL This summer is no exception. Vacationing Americans taking to the road feel that they are crawling at only a bit more than a snail's pace.

Interstate truckers feel that the speed limit drives up the cost of transporting goods. Drivers in the plains states who travel vast distances on almost empty roads feel that it causes needless and costly delays unwarrant ed and ill-advised intrusion by the federal government into an area traditionally reserved to the states remains federal law-despite the fact that its original purpose no longer needs seking.

The speed limit was enacted by Congress in March 1974 as part o f a package of measures dealing with the oil crisis mph, it was thought, was the most efficient use of an auto's engine and thus would save fuel. As it turned out, however, the energy actually saved was minimal-at best 1 percent of gasoline consumption or about the same amount a driver could realize by increasing the pressure of his radial tires from 24 to 26 pounds And state officials feel .that the NMSL is an Yet the 55 mph limit Cruising at 55 In the face of this data, speed limit advocates shifted grou nd.

They'.now touted 55 mph as a way to save lives first year of 55 mph on the law books, traffic fatalities plummeted an astounding 15.3 percent Indeed, during the While many states have objected to the NMSL, they did little to oppose it harsh penalties. Any state found in noncompliance (defined as having more than 50 percent of its drivers going faster than 55 mph for two successive years) could lose part or all of its federal highway funds. For another thing, since advocates of,the limit justified it on the basis of saving lives, any politician opposed to it found herself or himself painted as favoring more traffic fatalities.

Fipally, despite the evidence, the public thought that the speed limit actually saved a great deal of fuel. Thus while many oppos ed the NMSL rhetorically, there was little pressure for repeal This year, the situation changed dramatically. Ronald Reagan now has gone on record favoring repeal of 'the NMSL. Senator WhicI

Hecht, the Nevada Republican, and Representatives Barbara Vucanovich (R-NV Dave McCurdy (R-OK and James V. Hansen (R-UT) all have introduced legislation to repeal or modify the NMSL challenging the NMSL, and eleven Western governors have petitioned Congr ess for its repeal in danger of losing some federal highway funds for failing to comply with the 55 mph limit. Vermont, Arizona, and Maryland were found in noncompliance in 1984 and 1,9

85. As a result, the Department of Transportation plans to withhold $5 .1 million from Arizona and $1.9 million from Vermont. Maryland is contesting .DOT'S findings. In addition, Rhode Island and New Hampshire were found in noncompliance last year: if they are found in noncompliance this year, they also could lose federal fu n ds. As a result, the 55 mile limit is facing its first in-depth review since enactment-a process revealing the limit's assumed benefits to be a mirage As such, it is time for Congress to adinit that the 55 mph limit is not a major factor in saving either l ives or fuel, while the cost on V.S. consumers of slower journeys has been considerable. To make matters worse, the limit; as with Prohibition, has turned almost all Americans into chronic law-breakers. Few drivers have been spared the frustration of driv i ng dutifully at 55 mph only to be passed by almost every car and truck on the road. This drags the concept of law itself into disrepute. Saving lives on the highways, to be sure, is an important goal than by making Americans drive slower than in almost an y other industrial country. me 55 mph speed limit sew-es no purpose federal government thus should free the states to set limits most appropriate to local conditions For one thing, failure to comply with the law carried Nevada is going to court For the fir s t time since the NMSL was imposed, several states are But there are many more effective ways of doing so The 2DOES THE NMSL SAVE FUEL The notion that the 55 mile per hour speed limit helps conserve fuel has worked its way into the convent,ional wisdom so t horoughly that few drivers even question it benefits of the limit are minimal. As early as 1978, Dr. John Eberhart of the Department of.Transportation's Office of Driver Research found that the limit at best reduces fuel consumption one percent findings d i d not stop the Department of Transportation from continuing to claim that the NMSL could save up to 400,000 barrels of oil per day. Independent studies, meanwhile, indicate that the actual savings, if any, would be even lower than Eberhart estimated. 'The s e studies project fuel savings of one-half of one percent Yet the evidence shows that the This would equal 73,000 barrels of oil daily. Yet his Currently about 7.3 million barrels of oil are used for transportation each day. One percent'of this, as noted, is 73,000 barrels per day, or 26,645,000 barrels per year. When measured against annual domestic oil consumption of around 5.9 billion barrels the fuel saved is barely worth noting.

But even this'saving may be phony when measured against the cost it impos es. At current oil prices (around $13 per barrel), the value of the fuel allegedly saved by the NMSL would be just under $350 million. By contrast, according to a just-released study of the National Research Council, a panel operating under the auspices o f the National Academy of Sciences, the NMSL costs the,pation about one billion man-hours per year in added driving time minimum wage of $3.65 per hour, this amounts to $3.65 billion--more than ten times' the value of the fuel saved at current prices, and m ore than three times the value of the savings when the price of oil peaked. This figure does not include the estimated $200 million spent by states annually to enforce the measure the 55 mph limit is a very bad bargain Even at the In pure economic terms D OES THE 55 MILE PER HOUR LIMIT SAVE LIVES In the first year of the NMSL, national traffic fatalities fell 15.3 percent. Speed limit advocates immediately saw a causal relationship between the two events, and "Stay Alive at 55" was born.

The presumed link, however, seems illusory. If it existed, then traffic deaths would rise and fall in conjunction with changes in the average speed traveled. Although the average speed on the nation's highways has increased over the last ten Yet this has not been the case 1 . "Does Speed Kill Newsweek, July 21, 1986, p. 14 3years, as drivers increasingly ignored posted limits and enforcement efforts diminished, the number of highway fatalities per 100 million miles traveled has continued to decline. In 1982, for example, ther e was a 12.7 percent decrease in traffic deaths, even though average highway speeds,rose to 59 mph from 57.8 mph, or 2.1, percent the previous year. There has been, moreover, a steady decline in traffic fatalities averaging 3.1 percent per year since stati stics were first compiled in 19

23. The current decline seems just a continuation of an established trend.

Overseas experience also questions the role of speed as a factor in traffic fatalities. In West Germany, for example, where except for a brief exper iment in the 19708, there has been no speed limit on its high-speed expressway, the.Autobahn, fatalities steadily decreased between 1973 and 1979, even though the aggregate,number of miles traveled increased 50 percent. In neighboring France, which has on e of the s.trictest speed limits on the continent, the death tpll increased by 3.3 percent between 1978 and 1979, while Wesg Germany's death toll decreased by 11.5 percent for the same period rate there is no single factor that can be identified as primari l y responsible for the trend toward fewer highway deaths, a number of factors appear to have a significant effect on highway safety What, then, is responsible for the steady drop in the U.S. death In particular, what caused the dramatic decline in 1974? Wh i le e 1974 Fall in Fatalities When the Arab members of OPEC imposed their embargo against the West in 1973, it immediately affected the daily lives of Americans For one thing, gasoline prices rose sharply. For another, largely as a consequence of the feder al price and allocation regulations imposed on oil, severe shortages appeared at the gasoline pump. The nation's economy, moreover, was thrown into recession. The influence of these factors on driving was immediate.

Americans responded to higher gasoline prices by driving less in 1974 on weekends and for recreation. Experts estimate the reduction at between 25 percent and 30 percent recreational driving that fatal accidents are most likely to occur.

The reasons: weekend and recreational drivers are more li kely to be fatigued, have abused alcohol, or be traveling unfamiliar roads. All of these push up the accident rates It is during weekend and 2. "Does the 55 mph Speed Limit Save Lives The Wall Street Jou rnal, April 28, 1986 3. "The 55 mph Myth," Road a n d Track Manaz ine, May 1980, p. 157 4 e The change in driving habits was not 1974's only significant new factor. .That year Congress required that all automobiles sold in the U.8. be equipped with the "ignition interlock a device to prevent a driver from s tarting his or her car before buckling the seat belt.

That year, therefore a significant number of Americans used a seat belt for the first time. This drove down fatalities, for it is widely recognized that the use of a seat belt dramatically reduces the likelihood of being killed in an automobile accident.

If the reduction in maximum highway speeds were the key factor responsible for the 15.3 percent' drop in fatalities, then the decline would have:followed the law's enactment. Yet the decline in traffic fatalities. actually preceded the imposition of a national speed limit. In fact, highway deaths per 100 million miles traveled actually rose in the first few months after the speed limit was imposed more than 4.4 people were killed on the nation's highway s per 100 million miles traveled. By February 1974, one month before the National Maximum Speed Law was enacted, the fatality rate had dropped to slightly more than 3 per 100 million miles traveled. Over the next nine months, with the newly instituted spee d limit, the fatality rate rose to close to 4 persons per 100 million miles traveled by November 1974, then dropped somewhat in December. The fatality rate in December 1974 under the VL was nearly a third higher than it was in December 1973 without it In O c tober 1973, when the OPEC embargo was announced somewhat Highway deaths have continued to decline since 1974 even though Congress and the states should be average speeds have crept back up aware of this HOW TO SAVE LIVES Of all the measures that help redu c e highway fatalities, three are the most important, overshadowing the speed restrictions. If Congress and the states wish to cut the highway death rate they should focus on these 1) Remove i. n From one-third to one-half of all highway deaths are believed to be alcohol-related. Increased public concern' is leading to, penalties for drunk driving in many states. As important as the legal 4. Road and Track Maaaz QQAL 5-sanctions may be the public's changing attitudes social stigma attached to drivin g while under the 'influence of alcohol or drugs 2) E ncouraae Seat Belt Use There is now a Many states are now enacting mandatory seat belt laws, while voluntary use by the public is increasing place with regard to mandatory use of "infant seats" for chil d ren under age five individual action to prevent serious injury in the event of an accident A similar trend is taking Using a seat belt is the single most effective 3) Reduce SBeed Varianc e. Last December, Dr. Charles A. Lave of the University of Californ i a at Irvine discussed the matter of speed.variance, in the erican Economic Review. He wrote: th8re is no statistically discernible relationship between the fatality rate and average speed, though there is When most cars are traveling at about the same spe ed, whether it is a high speed or a low one, the fatality rate will be low-presumably because the probgbility of collision will be low. Variance kills, not speed.

Lave's study revealed that when cars were entering and leaving a strong relationship to speed variance highways with frequency or where, for other reasons, there could be a wide variation in the speed of cars traveling on the same highway accident rates and fatalities rose. To reduce fatalities, therefore traffic engineers and law enforcement off i cers should attempt to ensure that all traffic on a road travels as close to the same speed as possible. Lave concludes that his findings suggest that drivers who drive too slowly should be ticketed as readily as those who drive too fast. Indeed, prior to the imposition of the 55 mph limit, many states had "minimum speed" laws which were strictly enforced ENFORCEMENT OF THE NMSL: CATCH 22 Advocates of the 55 mph limit claim that the measure enjoys widespread public support more than 70 percent of the natio n 's drivers favor the limit accurate barometer of public attitudes is surely public behavior. Law They point to polls-which indicate that A more 5. "Charles Lave Speeding, Coordination and the 55 mph Limit 4 mericanc i Review, December 1985, p. 1159 6enfor c ement officials report more than 70 percent of America's drivers exceed the 55 mph limit jurisdictions to manipulate data regarding compliance with the NMSL to avoid losing federal highway funds cooking the books that 37 states weuld be in noncompliance i f statistics were reported honestly. New York State, for instance reported for 1985 ,that 45.6 percent of New York drivers exceeded the 55 mph limit. In reality-its Wnadjusted" figures-71.1 percent exceeded the limit 46.1 percent, but an unadjusted rate of 60.8 percent: while Connecticut had an adjysted rate of 36..8 percent, but an unadjusted rate of 62.15 percent. The NMSL may well be the most widely violated statute since Prohibition As with Prohibition, the NMSL has spawned an industry whose sole purpos e is to evade the law. Devices have been developed and are sold by the millions to detect the police radar units used to spot speeders. One firm, Cincinnati Microwave, sold 400,000 units last year alone. At a price of $245 to $295 each,.the radar detection gadgets from just this one firm cost the driving public over $100 million Widespread violation of the 55 mph limit has prompted many So extensive is this practice of New Jersey had an adjusted compliance rate of States'also try to get around the NMSL. Com p liance is measured by sensors embedded in the road which count the number of cars exceeding 55 mph. The states, however, have learned how to ensure that the number of speeders passing over these sensors is reduced. One way is to embed the sensors near the crest of a steep hill station state patrol cars prominently near the sensors so that drivers will slow down As a result, the sensors yield numbers .which show the states in compliance with the NMSL Another is to CONCLUSION A dozen years after its enactmen t , it is evident that the National Maximum Speed Law was a seriously flawed piece of legislation. conserve significant amounts of motor fuel the case. Had it not been for the mistaken connection made between imposition of the 55 mph limit in 1974 and the d r amatic decline in traffic fatalities that year, the law would probably not be on the The assumption was that reducing speeds would help This has not proved to be 6. Pewsweek, p ciL p. 21 7. Ivor Peterson Rebellion Grows in West and Plains Over U.S. Speed L imit," The New York Times, June 13, 1986, p. A14 7-books today contention that the NMSL is a major factor in reducing traffic fatalities on the nation's highways. In short 55 is a law the U.S can safely live without There is more than ample evidence now t o refute the Milton R. Copulos Senior Policy Analyst 8 I


Milton R.

Senior Visiting Fellow