Clocking the 55 mph Debate

From the Washington Times, June 7, 1995

From the Congressional Record, June 20,1995, pg S8649

If you want to get a debate going among legal scholars about the meaning of federalism, ask them about the Supreme Court's recent decision limiting the reach of the Constitution's interstate commerce clause. But if you want to get a debate going among ordinary people, ask them abut the 55 mph speed limit, which strikes some Americans the same way the Stamp Act struck Patrick Henry.

The 55 mph speed limit was mandated by the federal government in 1973 at the behest of President Nixon, who proposed it as a way to conserve fuel during the Arab oil embargo. States, which had always set the speed limits on their highways, suddenly found they had lost their authority. They may finally get it back, though, as a result of the GOP takeover of Congress. Republican Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma has introduced a bill to repeal the federal maximum. Other bills in Congress would simply deprive Washington of the money to enforce it.

The issue that arouses car buffs is speed. Prior to the federal intrusion, states set the limits anywhere from 65 mph to 80 mph--and Montana and Wyoming had no limit at all. Drivers with lots of pent-up horsepower have yearned for years to be able to open the throttle without fear of the highway patrol.

The passion on the other side of the issue is safety. One unforeseen result of the lower speed limit, defenders say, was a sharp decline in traffic fatalities, and one inevitable consequence of raising it will be more carnage on the roads.

The opponents of 55 are not entirely without arguments. They insist that everyone ignores it because it is ridiculously low and that higher limits would bring the law into closer conformity with the prevailing practice. Besides, they say, plenty of highways are engineered for much higher speeds than those now allowed.

The case amounts to more than just determined rationalization of dangerous behavior, but not a lot more. The defenders of 55 say that when Washington let states raise the limit to 65 on rural interstates in 1987, the death toll on those roads jumped by 20 percent.

This validates the common-sense assumption that if people drive faster, they are more likely to get killed. `It's possible to design cars and roads for high speed, but we haven't been able to design people for high speed,' says Chuck Hurley of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. If posted maximums rise, I somehow doubt today's speeders will start obeying the law. Higher limits may or may not mean less speeding; they will definitely mean more speed.

But to get caught up in the issue of where to set the speed limit is to miss the more important issue, which is who should set it. There are plenty of good reasons to support 55, but none to insist that it be imposed by Washington.

On this, the left and the right should have no trouble agreeing. Conservatives have always wanted to decentralize power. But last year, during the debate on the crime bill, it was liberals who opposed Congress' grandstanding federalization of crime by noting that public safety and order have always been the province of local and state governments. If you're waiting for liberals to apply that logic to the speed limit issue, though, you'd better make yourself comfortable.

In fact, there is no reason on Earth that states should not be free to decide for themselves whether the danger of more auto accidents outweighs the advantages of faster travel. In a country that has highways as congested as New Jersey's and as empty as New Mexico's, we should be able to recognize that different places and that locals are best situated to make the judgment.

Nothing about the issue warrants federal intervention. If a state ignores pollution, the state next door will suffer harm to public health; if a state slashes welfare, its neighbors may be flooded with paupers. But if Illinois chooses to let people drive 70 mph on its highways, no one in Iowa will be at risk.

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