by Nichole M Christian
staff reporter of The Wall Street Journal
Like most otherwise law-abiding American Drivers, Kelly Franklin turns into a criminal behind the wheel. She typically cruises a good 10 miles an hour faster than the law allows.
"You go with the flow, or you get run over," the 26-year-old Detroit schoolteacher says in her own defense. In the Motor City, she adds, "nobody does 55."
As drivers start their engines for the summer driving season, it's becoming increasingly clear that hardly anybody in America still abides by the national urban-areas limit of 55 miles an hour -- or even the rural limit of 65. Congress may repeal the controversial, 21-year-old national limit later this year.
Sen. Don Nickles, an Oklahoma Republican, is backing an amendment to a highway spending bill that would let the states set limits based on whatever speed 85% of residents actually srive. That's a commonly used rule of thumb among traffic engineers, the theory being that 85% of drivers will choose an appropriate and safe speed.
"On a lot of highways," Sen Nickles maintains, "55 miles an hour will cause an accident faster than doing 75. It makes more sense to let the states determine what works on their roads than to keep mandating one national maximum limit that no one obeys." As for himself, the sendator concedes to "going with flow" when he drives.
Certainly, the original reasons for imposing one of the world's slowest speed limits -- the 1973 oil embargo and ensuing fuel-conserving craze -- have evaportated. Even at higher speeds, today's cars and light trucks are significantly more fuel-efficient than the gas guzzlers of the early 1970s. And gasoline prices today are lower on an inflation-adjusted basis than before the oil crisis.
So why nor raise the speed limits? Safety, say opponents. If Congress repeals the national speed limits, safety advocates charge, that cost will be thousands of addtional highway fatalities each year.
"The data are very clear on what's going to happen if the states get their way and are allowed to set any limit they want," says Judith L. Stone, the president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. "People are going to die, and we're going to lose every gain that has been made in terms of safer-driving reform." Safety advocates refer to the summer driving >season, which begins this weekend, as "the 100 deadly days of summer."
In 1974, when Congress ordered a national speed limit of 55 mph, Ms. Stone says, car-related fatalaties dropped 16% to 46,000 from 55,000 in 1973, when state-set limits ranged from 65 to 75 mph. (Some toll roads permitted speeds as high as 80 miles an hour, and Wyoming and Montana had no limits.) In 1987, when the rural-interstate limit was boosted to 65, she says fatalities increased 20%.
Other data touted by 55-mph proponents come from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In 1994, according to that agency, excessive speed was ruled to be a factor for 34% of all highway fatalities in Texas and caused 41% of California's car-related deaths. The U.S. Department of Transportation links one-third of all fatal traffic crashes to speeding drivers.
Still, today's highway-fatality rates are much lower than 20 years ago relative to the population, thanks to safety innovations such as air bags and antilock brakes; enforcement of safety-belt use and drunk driving laws; and vehicle bodies engineered to better protect passengers in crashes. But Ms. Stone's group estimates that without a national speed limit, nearly 3,000 new names will be added to the list of 40,000 people who die in highway crashes each year.
Nonsense, rejoins the rising chorus of voices supporting repeal. Jim Baxter, the president of the National Motorists Association, challenges the relationship between speed limits and highway fatalitites. "If we set new limits that reflect what people are driving right now, the only thing we're changing is the numbers on the signs," he says. "How does that equate with thousands of new fatalities? People are already driving aboce the speed limit, so we should see the increases [in fatalities] now."
What's more, argues Csaba Csere, the editor in chief of Car and Driver magazine, the biggest contributor to the fatality rate may be the national speed limits themselves. "You don't want a bunch of people on the highway going 56 miles an hour while the rest of the world is moving at 65 and 75 miles an hour," he says. "It's too big of a speed differential. That's what causes accidents."
Ultimately, he adds, this is a fundamental issue of democracy. "It's quite ludicrous for a bunch of politicians sitting up in a congested Washington D.C., to determine what the speed limit ought to be for the person on an empty road in Nevada who is 60 to 70 miles away from the nearest town," Mr. Csere says, who admits to driving at around 75 mph.
The average U.S. driver, observers note, exceeds posted limits by seven to 12 miles an hour. Along New York state's rural interstates, driver disregard for a 55-mph speed limit was so common that the legislature was recently forced to raise it to 65. What the legislature couldn't ignore was a study showing that 96% of New York drivers were exceeeding the 55 mph limit.
"Everyone does it," says Jeff Richards, a 37-year-old auto-safety information research specialist who lives in suburban San Diego. He admits to generally driving at 70 mph, 15 miles an hour above the state limit, until he spots a highway-patrol car. Then, he slows just enough to let the officer pass him. "We're like a bunch of fish. We get out there, and all of a sudden everyone is doing 70, 75, even 80. It's been drilled into our heads that that's what the roads were built for."
But speeding drivers have made James Cameron's job as Michigan State Police sergeant difficult and dangerous. In what has been declared by the National Motorists Association the fastest state in America, he says, the de facto speed limit is usually between 75 and 80 mph, even in urban areas.
"We definitely don't need any more speed," Sgt. Cameron says. "People get in their cars, and they act like they're unconscious. They don't pay attention to the cars around them or the speed limit. It's crazy." By contrast, neighboring Ohio and nearby Kentucky are famous for zealous enforcement efforts, which do slow traffic on their highways.
Safety concerns or not, many states are set to re-establish the limits that were in effect before 1974 if Congress repeals the national limits. In Western states, where vast streaches of highway separate towns, the issue looms particularly large.
Col. Craig Reap of the Montana Highway Patrol, longs for a return to his state's days of no speed limit. He says the 55-mph limit is ineffective. "When you set a speed limit too low, getting people to follow the law is like trying to sweep the ocean back with a broom," he says. What's more, under Montana law, speeders pay only a $5 on-the-spot fine. Col. Reap's department issues 60,000 of the $5 traffic fines a year.
Will higher limits encourage Americans to drive faster than they already do? Col. Reap and other law-enforcement officials doubt it. Says Col. Reap: "We're not going to let people run amok."
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