If you thought the 55-mph “National Maximum Speed Limit” (NMSL) was a dead letter — gone and over with — maybe you better grab a chair and sit down. There’s a movement afoot to restore this Carter-era tool for mulcting motorists — under the guise of “protecting public health” — and by misrepresenting the truth about the safety of America’s highways.
An agglutination of bureaucrats calling itself the Governors Highway Safety Association — “representing federally funded state highway offices nationwide” — is beating the kettles about what it claims is an “epidemic of speeding” (that is, driving faster than 55-mph) and a supposed uptick in traffic fatalities caused by driving faster than 55.
According to a recent GHSA press release: “Since Congress repealed the national speed limit in 1995, much of the public has perceived speed limits as merely guidelines and not the law.” Abandonment of “Drive 55” has fostered dangerous attitudes toward speed limits in general, the group says — and that as a result, the roads are more dangerous than they used to be. Kathyryn Swanson, chairman of the GHSA, claims that “speeding is not getting the attention it deserves on the national level despite the critical role it plays in traffic deaths, one of the nation’s most serious health problems.” Translation: Bring back 55 and break out the radar guns and ticket pads.
But leaving aside the garbled thinking that equates the act of driving faster than a number on a sign with physical illnesses like cancer or diabetes — a verbal shuck and jive of Clintonian stupendousness — there’s absolutely no support for GHSA’s implication that because people now routinely get to drive faster than 55-mph without having to worry about being waylaid and ticketed for “speeding,” the roads are therefore less safe.
The federal government uses a mathematical formula to calculate and express highway fatalities in relation to the total mileage driven annually by the nation’s “motor pool” — all the cars on the road and how far they’re driven. This is expressed as deaths per 100 million Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT). In 2002 — the most recent year for which data is available — there were approximately 1.52 deaths nationwide for every 100 million Vehicle Miles Traveled. That figure is unchanged from 2001 — and represents the lowest fatality rate per VMT in decades.
But here’s where it — and the Governors Highway Safety Association — gets tricky.
In 2002, there were 42,850 motor vehicle fatalities in this country — the highest number since 1990. This figure is the one being waved around like a bloody shirt to gin up support for lowering speed limits — and for aggressive enforcement of existing ones.
So what’s the catch?
Go back and read the last couple paragraphs carefully. Yes, more people were killed in motor vehicle accidents in 2002 than in 1990. But — and it’s a pretty big “but” — the overall fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled has not gone up at all. It has stayed the same.
What this means is that while there were indeed more fatal accidents in ’02, there were also more cars on the road — and those cars were racking up more miles — making it a statistical wash. Claiming that the roads are less safe because there were more reported deaths without factoring in the increase in traffic and the miles being driven is massively dishonest. It’s like saying that America is “disease ridden” — relative to Switzerland — because more people have heart disease here than there. It’s true, of course, that there are more cardiac cases in a nation of 300 million than in Switzerland, a country of 15 million — but what matters is the cardiac rate in relation to the population.
Numbers can’t be considered in isolation.
In fact, since the total number of highway deaths per VMT has remained about the same (or declined) for the past several years — while the number of cars on the road and the annual mileage being driven have increased quite significantly — it can be very credibly argued that the overall safety picture is actually better. We’ve got more cars out there being driven by more people for greater distances — and no increase in the death rate.
But you won’t hear that from the Governor’s association.
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