Another Perspective

Double Nickle Double Talk

Despite what you might hear, speeding has not been a serious problem since the repeal of the 55-mph speed limit ten years ago.

By 6.23.05

Here's how double-talk works in Washington:

The Governors Highway Safety Association sent out a "survey" to automotive journalists under the header, "Speeding a Serious Problem 10 Years After National Speed Limit Repeal" -- implying that traffic accidents and fatalities have increased since Congress repealed the 55-mph National Maximum Speed Limit (NMSL) law back in 1995.

The accompanying short press release from GHSA Comunications Director Jonathan Adkins stated that the "survey" would "detail state efforts to combat speeding-relating fatalities" -- further hinting none-too-subtly that the repeal of the 55-mph NMSL has made the roads "less safe."

In essence, the "speed kills" argument is being trotted out again by parties who would like to see the 55-mph speed limit re-imposed -- for "safety's sake."

But as an automotive journalist who has been covering the issue since the early 1990s, I knew something was not right here. The fact of the matter is that since the repeal of the NMSL in 1995, overall accident and fatality rates on U.S. highways (per million vehicle miles traveled, or VMT) have either remained the same or declined. There certainly hasn't been a major (or even statistically significant) uptick.

So I asked GHSA's Jonathan Adkins for clarification. Here's my verbatim question to him:

"Hi Jonathan,

"It's my understanding that accident and fatality rates per VMT have not increased significantly since the1995 repeal of the NMSL.

"Is this not correct?

"Your release appears to claim that 'speeding' has resulted in an increase in U.S. accident/fatality rates.

"Do you have data to support this?"

Here is his "answer" -- if it can be called that:

"The issue is more that speed fatalities haven't decreased in the last decade. Rather shocking considering all the advances with vehicle safety (i.e. airbags) and the fact that seatbelt use has doubled since the early '90s."

But that, of course, is not what the "survey" or the press release implied at all. It wasn't titled, "Fatalities Haven't Decreased" -- or "Safety Advances Haven't Saved As Many Lives As Hoped." It was an open broadside against higher speed limits -- and without a shred of factual support for the revival of the "speed kills" mantra that has become a sort of fetishistic religion in some quarters, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

Adkins may find it "rather shocking" that airbags and increased seatbelt use haven't saved more lives -- but that's got nothing to do with the question: Have higher-than-55-mph speed limits made the roads less safe?

"Speeding" merely means driving faster than whatever number is posted on a highway sign -- a technical foul, so to speak. Before 1995, for example, it was "speeding" to drive 65 or 70 mph on most U.S. interstates. Now it's perfectly legal. The important question for those concerned about rational traffic laws is whether "speeding" (as defined by Adkins, et al.) necessarily means less safe. And all evidence says it doesn't. If it did, driving faster than 55 mph ("speeding," under the Adkins/GHSA definition) would automatically and always mean more traffic accidents, more people being killed in cars. But people today routinely (and now lawfully) drive at speeds that, prior to 1995, put them in peril of very expensive tickets for "speeding" with no more risk of being involved in an accident than was the case prior to the 1995 repeal of the NMSL.

Those are the facts -- as distinct from the agit-prop coming from the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Trouble is, many news outlets will take the "findings" of the "survey" at face value -- and help spread the lie that our roads are less safe today than before Congress repealed Drive 55.

Don't believe a word of it.

It just isn't so.

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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.