Tuesday, December 2, 2008


For those of old enough to remember, there was once a time that we had a nationwide 55-mile-per-hour speed limit.

Gas lines and gasoline shortages. OPEC.

At Richard Nixon's urging, Congress approved the National Speed Limit Law, which prohibited speeds in excess of 55 mph, in 1974. Even as crude oil prices rose, but gas lines disappeared, in 1987, Congress increased the speed limit to 65 mph. Then, in concert with individual responsibility and personal freedoms sentiment that was running rampant in Congress in the Gingrich days, Congress repealed the Act altogether in 1995 (Crude oil was $17.00 a barrel and regular gasoline cost $1.10/ gallon.) and states were once again allowed to set their own maximum speed limits.

It's safe to say that motorists ignored the speed limit entirely while it was in effect.

You might recall that, when the national law was repealed, Montana had no set maximum, daytime speed limit for the better part of three years. The rule was "reasonable and prudent" and, until the legislature acted to set specific maximum speed limits in 1999, Big Sky County became the laughingstock of the western world. Stories abounded about the United States Autobahn.

Perhaps its time to revive a discussion about the merits of reducing the speed limit, most notably fuel conservation, safety and carbon emissions.

For those who believe we can make the biggest dent in our dependence on foreign sources of crude oil through conservation, reducing the speed limit is one major initiative that could make a huge difference.

For those who say they will do anything to reduce carbon emission so long as it does not harm the economy and competitiveness of the United States in world markets, welcome aboard.

The only real cost here is time, extra time spent driving the vast, open spaces of the Treasure State. Scholars call it 'psychological adjustment.' For us lay people, it's called personal sacrifice.

Let the battle of statistics begin.

Yes, time is worth something. How much?

Yes, slower speed limits appear to conserve fuel. How much?

Consumer Reports tested the effect of higher speeds on gas mileage. David Champion, director of auto testing, found that boosting the highway speed of a 2006 Toyota Camry cut gasoline mileage dramatically:

•55 m.p.h. – 40.3 miles per gallon

•65 m.p.h. – 34.9 miles per gallon

•75 m.p.h. – 29.8 miles per gallon

On a hypothetical 1,900-mile round trip from New York City to Disney World in Florida, the Camry would use 47 gallons of gas at 55 m.p.h.. But at 75 m.p.h., it would burn nearly 64 gallons – a $70 difference.

One of the most amusing arguments against reducing the speed limit is enforcement. With the speed limit at 55 mph, some observers estimated that approximately 4,000 lives a year were spared. 4,000. Evidently, the concern is that there will be a dangerous mix of drivers who obey and drivers who ignore a reduced speed limit. If Montana were to reduce the speed limit with the token $5.00 energy conservation penalty for speeding violations, these concerns are likely well-founded.

Lower speed limits appear to save lives. How many?

There has been no real serious discussion abou this idea in recent times.

Nor is it likely to see that light of day in Helena. After all, although not protected in the constitution like the right to bear arms, driving as fast as one wants to is a sacred right in Montana.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Capital Blogger,

Nice article. Unfortunately, as you pointed out, most folks will do anything to conserve, so long as it doesn't personally affect them - affect their ability to get somewhere faster or affect their "right" to gauge what is a safe speed.

Now that gas prices have again fallen, most individuals will not perceive that now is the time to speak about conserving - after all if there really were a shortage, wouldn't the price be higher (supply and demand). And really is it all that important to save lives? No one will be personally interested in that fact until it comes to roost on their very own door step in the form of a lost family member due to a speed related traffic accident.

Most people will talk of all the things that need to be done in hopes that others will begin the process. It is really too much work to do it all yourself, or to take initiative and be an individual guiding light. A true but very sad commentary on today's individuals.