Thursday, December 08, 2005

10 Years Ago Today: End of the Road for the National Maximum Speed Limit

Ten years ago today, the National Maximum Speed Limit--a federal law that limited the top speed limit to 55 miles per hour on all highways from 1974 to 1987 and 65 on rural interstates and 55 on all other highways from 1987 to 1995--came to an end. The then-infant Republican majority in Congress repealed the most ignored federal law since Prohibition and returned to the states the power to set all highway speed limits and determine enforcement levels.

Our thanks for this achievement belong with the National Motorists Association, a national motorists' rights organization founded in 1982 with an initial purpose of repealing the NMSL. Today, the NMA continues its advocacy for "reasonable speed limits, better driver training, improved motorist-to-motorist courtesy, and sensible, easily understood regulations." The NMA issued the following announcement to commemorate this anniversary:

Madison, Wisconsin, December 6, 2005 -- Motorists across the nation can celebrate the Tenth Anniversary of the repeal of the National Maximum Speed Limit (NMSL) by driving at safe, legal speeds well above 55 mph. National legislation repealing the decades-old NMSL was signed into law on December 8, 1995.

The NMSL, a product of the Nixon administration, was implemented in response to the OPEC oil embargo. After the embargo was lifted, a coalition of groups appeared in support of the lower limit as a "life-saving measure." It was because of such arguments that Congress passed legislation making the 55-mph National Maximum Speed Limit permanent in 1975.

The Citizens Coalition for Rational Traffic Laws (CCRTL), which later became the National Motorists Association (NMA), was founded seven years later for the express purpose of repealing the NMSL. As public compliance shrank, Congressional supporters of the NMSL authorized a National Academy of Science study to document the benefits of the national limit. This study radically altered the dynamics of the public's discussion of the limit.

The NMA demanded that costs, as well as benefits, be part of any evaluation of this law. The debate was dragged into the public and political arenas and the support and rationalizations for the 55-mph NMSL started to show serious flaws. Claims of lives saved were proven largely invalid. The fact that non-compliance was much greater than the government was admitting also came to light. Public opinion began to shift, and it became socially and politically acceptable to at least talk about higher speed limits.

During this discourse, the NMA became the clear primary opponent of the NMSL. Our organization encouraged sympathetic members of Congress to help us undo the damage of 55-mph limit. Ultimately, in 1987, despite predictions of thousands of additional highway fatalities, Congress decided to allow states to raise Interstate and expressway speed limits to 65 mph.

By the early 1990s, these doom and gloom scenarios were proven false. All but a few states had opted to raise their speed limits, while fatality rates declined nationwide. Following this limited victory, the NMA continued to push for a full repeal of the NMSL. Through a little serendipity and a lot of hard work, Congress passed and President Clinton signed legislation that included a provision repealing the NMSL in its entirety.

Again, opponents of the repeal claimed that without a national speed limit fatalities would increase by over 6,000 victims in the first year alone. Instead, many states raised limits to 70 or 75 mph, expanded 65-mph speed limits to other roads, and the number of fatalities actually declined. During the past ten years since that time, the fatality rate has continued to decline, despite higher speed limits and higher driving speeds. This clearly demonstrated that the 22-year-long experiment with an arbitrary national speed limit served no positive purpose. It wasted time, resources, and billions of dollars while neither reducing fuel consumption nor improving highway safety.

The National Motorists Association was established in 1982 to represent the interests and rights of North American motorists. It is a grassroots organization that operates at the national level and through a system of state chapters. It continues to advocate safe and reasonable speed limits set in accordance with traffic engineering standards, not arbitrary political whim. The NMA is entirely supported through the contributions of individuals, families, and small businesses.

Since 1995, 31 states have raised their top speed limit to 70, 75 or 80 miles per hour. Over this period, the only reduction came in 1999 when Montana imposed a 75 mph speed limit. North Dakota and Texas have both had multiple rounds of speed limit increases. Colorado and Texas are developing new toll roads (the Front Range Toll Road and the Trans-Texas Corridors) that will feature 85 mph speed limits when constructed over the next decade.

Maximum Daytime Rural Interstate Speed Limits by State, December 2005Green=80 mph; Yellow=75 mph; Blue=70 mph; Red=65 mph; Black =60 mph

Overall, however, speed limits are generally where they were 35 years ago despite light years of progress in automobile and highway design. Regardless of posted limits or enforcement practices, prevailing traffic speeds in most parts of the country tend to be 75-80 mph on rural freeways, 65-75 on four-lane highways with uncontrolled access, and 60-65 on primary rural 2-lane highways.

The profession of traffic engineering has determined appropriate methods for speed zoning. The NMA has developed a catalogue of state DOT policies, which most often are not followed. According to the West Virginia Department of Transportation:

"There is a common belief among laymen and even some elected officials that traffic speeds can be lowered by merely posting signs. This is not true. Artificially low speed limits invite violations by responsible drivers. Enforcement of unrealistically low speed limits sets up a “speed trap” which is poor public relations and causes a loss of respect for traffic law enforcement activities in general.

"The nationally accepted principle, which is followed by the Division of Highways, is to set the posted speed limit at the speed below which 85% of the vehicles travelingling on the road or street, in the absence of factors which may introduce a special hazard. Experience has shown that at least 85% of motorists drive at a speed which is reasonable and prudent, operating their vehicles at a speed which reflects the character of the roadway and the amount of development along it. The other 15% are those who may be subject to enforcement action."

The United States is well behind many countries in freeway speed zoning. Wikipedia shows that Belgium, Finland, Greece, Ireland, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland post 120 km/h (75 mph) speed limits on their freeways; Austria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Turkey are at 130 km/h (80 mph); Italy has adopted a 150 km/h (95 mph) speed limit on its newest Autostradas; and, of course, the Germans can still drive the Autobahn at the speed of their choice and have a fatality rate slightly lower than the U.S. interstate system despite their high speeds.