The Nation's Pulse

Is 55 in Our Future?

There's growing talk about the need to impose lower speed limits as a "conservation" measure.

By 5.23.08

Send to Kindle

If there's one thing that's worse than paying $4 per gallon for gasoline, it's the resurgent talk of lowering speed limits to conserve fuel.

Because, of course, these lowered limits won't be enforced as a "conservation" measure.

Any curtailment of speed limits will be treated as a saaaaafety issue -- just as happened during the Dark Decades of the 55 mph National Maximum Speed Limit. "Speeding" tickets will be issued and "points" assigned. At the stroke of a lawmaker's pen (and the cop's, too) driving "x" MPH will suddenly become "unsafe," rather than merely wasteful.

This is the most intolerable aspect of the whole scam.

If they at least just changed the laws/penalties so that instead of a traffic ticket you got a one-time fine for "overconsumption of fuel" (or whatever) that had nothing to do with traffic safety, carried no "points," and was a purely civil fine that never came near a traffic court.... okay I'd still oppose it, but at least it would be honest and we'd have a policy that had some rational basis.

THE NMSL ERA COMPLETELY corrupted traffic safety enforcement. Prior to its enactment, people were still issued tickets, of course. But the speed limits of the pre-NMSL era at least tracked roughly with two important criteria.

The first was the intended design speeds envisioned by the engineers who built the U.S. Interstate Highway System. Our national highway network was not built randomly; rather, precise studies were done to establish parameters for such things as lines of sight, the radius of curves in the road, and so on. All this was done assuming average traffic speeds in the 70 mph range. And this was back in the mid-late 1950s -- and so also assumed 1950s-era vehicle technology, including tires, braking ability, and so on. There was no ABS in 1955; no traction control, no air bags, not even seat belts. Most cars had four wheel drum brakes and suspension systems that would be considered inferior to the clunkiest 200,000 mile pick-up truck by today's standards.

And yet, professional engineers deemed it safe to travel in such cars on the Interstates they designed at speeds of 70 mph or thereabouts. And thus, speed limits were set in the 70 mph range -- and stayed that way until the mid-1970s, when the 55 mph limit was passed to "conserve fuel" -- but enforced as a saaaaafety violation until 1995, when it was finally repealed.

The second criterion that made pre-NMSL speed limits and enforcement more reasonable was that the higher speed limits of that era conformed with the so-called 85th percentile rule. This is the officially recognized means (even today!) by which speed limits are supposed to be set (but routinely aren't). The 85th percentile rule is laid out in the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) which is considered the "bible" of traffic safety. Simply stated, the 85th percentile rule means that the natural flow of traffic on a given road should be observed and measured -- and the speed limit set with 5 mph or so of the speed that 85 percent of the vehicles are traveling.

Guess what the 85th percentile speed is on most U.S. highways? Around 70-75 mph.

But thanks to $4 per gallon fuel, we may be about to revisit history -- and relive an era we thought was safely behind us.

ONLY THIS TIME, it'll be worse because of the much-improved tools at the disposal of the authorities -- including automated speed cameras and photo radar, which can issue tickets to every single car that goes by instead of like the old days, when a cop could only mulct one hapless motorist at a time.

So far, I have yet to see anyone challenge the soft-head orthodoxy that "speed" always and necessarily "kills" (if it does, why do most people survive jet airplane rides at 350 mph and faster?) or explain why and how it is that for 20 years, under the 55 mph limit, it was treated as "unsafe" to drive even a few mph faster -- but after the repeal of the NMSL it suddenly became not just legal to do so but (apparently) "safe" once again? Seventy mph on I-81 in Virginia today is at most a minor ticket; just 5 mph over the posted max of 65 mph. But pre-1995, the exact same speed on the exact same road was dangerous speeeeeeeding. And risked a very big ticket for 15 over that was literally just 6 mph shy of a "reckless driving" cite. Please.

The whole sickly con is so transparent it ought to be unnecessary to even make these observations. Everyone (except perhaps a few Blue Hairs in Buicks) understands the game. We all play along. Yes, officer. I know I was going tooooo faaaaaast. I won't ever do it again. I promise...

Get ready, because here we go again.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

Eric Peters is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities: The Cars You Love to Hate (Motor Books International) and a new book, Road Hogs.