Fewer people are being killed in motor vehicle accidents each year -- despite much higher lawful highway speeds in most states. Yet the same chorus of nags that warned of a B-movie bloodbath should Congress rescind the 55 mph National Maximum Speed Limit now insists that the failure of the predicted carnage to materialize after 55 was tossed in the dustbin of history is only due to the improved built-in safety of modern cars.
Bunk -- and easily dispelled bunk at that.
Congress repealed the 55 mph NMSL in 1995 -- but the nation didn't suddenly swap out its entire vehicle fleet for a new breed of "hyper-safe" cars. The same vehicles that were being driven at 55 mph in 1995 were being driven 65, 70 mph and faster in '96, '97 and '98. Many pre-'95 vehicles are still in service today. They didn't suddenly get "safer" by dint of a change in the law.
Air bags and anti-lock brakes are not new technology, either. They're more commonplace today -- but they were not rarities in '95, either.
To attribute improved safety (and declining fatality rates) exclusively to the material improvement in automobile safety technology is to give too much credit where it isn't due. Improvements in safety technology are real -- but incremental. They are not "night and day" life changing; nor do they take place instantaneously or overwhelmingly.
And yet, the self-styled "safety" lobby -- mainly the insurance industry's PR arm and a few groups of hyperventilating "moms" who worship 55 mph as if it were the 11th Commandment -- argue that the absence of the predicted uptick in motor vehicle fatalities, despite higher post-1995 speeds, is only due to "safer" cars that serve as a counterbalance to less "safe" driving practices.
For example, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) just published a study claiming 5,000 additional deaths per year -- an 11 percent increase -- would have happened because of higher post-1995 speed limits absent the palliative effect of modern safety technologies.
Naturally, the IIHS and its co-religionists urge a return to "safer" (i.e., slower) speeds -- and more vigorous enforcement, including photo radar.
"People are becoming complacent," says IIHS study author Adrian Lund. "Our results show in recent years it's only because we're doing such a good job of getting people into safer vehicles."
Only that's simply not the case at all.
The American Automobile Association notes that the average age of the cars and trucks in service continues to climb -- and that there are more 8 to 10-year-old vehicles on the road today than at any time previously. In other words, there are legions of cars and trucks that left the dealer's lots right about the time of the NMSL repeal in 1995, or shortly thereafter, still in service today. The same kinds of cars, in other words, that people were also driving pre-1995.
And some cars, of course, are inherently safer than others -- irrespective of age or the state of their technology. For example, you'd be a lot more likely to walk away from a major accident as the driver of a full-size 1994 S-Class Mercedes than a 2007 Honda Fit compact -- despite the Fit's "state of the art" side impact and head curtain air bags. The much bigger Benz is inherently more crashworthy -- even at 70 mph -- than the Fit is at 55 mph.
Bottom line: There's so much overlap between cars built pre-1995 (and pre-NMSL repeal) and those built after the repeal that to equate the lack of an increase in motor vehicle fatalities after Congress dropped the 55 mph limit is bad analysis at best -- and outright dishonest at worst.
I'll take the latter -- as the "safety" lobby has an established record of twisting statistics and deploying scare tactics in its endless quest to protect the Revenue State and its necessary corollary of dumbed-down, artificially low speed limits. More realistic speed limits (70-something MPH is in accordance with the design speeds envisioned by the engineers who laid out our Interstate Highway system back in the 1950s) means fewer fish to shoot in the barrel -- and that means less money for the state and less money for the insurance companies on the basis of jacked-up premiums justified on the basis of trumped-up "speeding" tickets.
The fact that fewer people are dying on our highways -- notwithstanding routine travel at speeds considerably higher than allowed under the old 55 MPH standard -- is to be dismissed as a lucky happenstance, due only to the saving grace of "better cars."
In truth the issue is much more complex than this simple-minded, agenda-driven analysis. Advancing safety technology has made the average new car safer, on balance, than its otherwise equivalent predecessor. But not all cars are "equivalent"-- and the presence or absence of a given piece of safety equipment is just one of many factors affecting motor vehicle fatality rates -- and cannot by itself account for the absence of the direly warned of post-repeal fatality upsurge that never took place.
There is, for example, clear evidence that higher speed limits can be safer when they supplant arbitrarily set, artificially low limits that cause traffic to flow unevenly. The old "double nickel" limit is a perfect case in point. The government unilaterally imposed this lower limit (as an energy conservation measure) that was 10-20 mph below the intended design speed of the Interstate system. This wasn't "safer" -- but it was frustrating, very much like having one's progress impeded on a crowded city street by an oblivious tourist who stops to window shop and refuses to make way for people on their way to work. People -- and cars -- jockey for position. Tailgating and sudden braking -- two things directly correlated with a greater likelihood of an accident -- become more common.
The point being, slower is not, ipso facto, safer. If it were, jumbo jets would only take off at 55 mph -- not 180 mph. Trains would never travel faster than 25 mph -- preceded by "safety crews" waving red flags and shouting warnings. We could all just sit on the porch and never move again. Or stay in our beds. That would be the "safest" thing of all.
The IIHS might just have to do a study.
But until they figure out a way to get money out of it, don't expect much.