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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > 55 mph Speed Limit

Before condemning to death and serious injury thousands of Americans each year, the proponents of revoking the federal limit of 55 mph on federal interstate highways displayed a model of doubletalk in the House of Representatives debate. The argumentative madness was exemplified by Cong. Barney Frank (D­MA) who said that since he violates this speed limit it would be hypocritical for him to uphold its continuance.
Backed by pressure from western members of Congress, who apparently see no problem with making their already highest fatality rates on interstates even higher, Congress passed the revocation and left it up to the states to decide to go up to 65 mph on federal roads.

Some states like New Mexico couldn’t wait; they already had laws in place anticipating lifting of the federal ban. Other states such as Connecticut, New Jersey and New York appear to have Governors and legislators who want to stay at 55. While the rest of the states are mulling the matter over in the next few weeks.

The 55 speed limit was imposed in the mid Seventies in response to the oil crisis. It is the kind of social legislation that shows what progress can be made when Americans pull together. The 55 speed limit had overwhelming support then and still retains majority support today.

Yes, almost half of thedrivers exceed this limit due to the traditional “police tolerance factor”. This applies to all speed limits including ones much lower in suburban areas where a 30 mph limit is exceeded by 99% of drivers. Raising the speed limit to 65 mph will have the same “tolerance factor” applied to those who go 70 mph.

The fact of the matter is that the 55 mph limit saves 3000 to 4000 lives a year, according to the National Safety Council, which also points out that many more thousands of permanent disabilities are prevented annually. Large amounts of fuel are saved. Studies of large truck fuel efficiency have concluded that having trucks go ten or fifteen miles above 55 loses more dollars in fuel than any savings in time.

For those Americans who opposed the 55 mph limit, consider looking in your rear view mirror next time you are zipping along an interstate. If you see one or more of those giant truck rigs bearing down behind you, it may give you second thoughts to know that, should you have to brake suddenly, the big truck behind you will take more than twice the distance to stop in host instances. Truck brakes, even when properly maintained, are not adequate nor comparable with car brakes in emergencies. Moreover, spot governmental inspections around the country year after year report all too often poor or dangerously bad maintenance of trucking brakes.

When Congress over-rode President Reagan’s veto of the highway construction bill, containing the revocation of 55 (he supported revocation but didn’t like the dollar volume of the bill), almost everyone focused on the jobs issue and ignored the death and injury and energy waste issues.

Even Cong. James Howard (D-NJ), who stalwartly led the defense of the 55 limit voted for the final bill because he knew there was no hope. So did Senator Daniel Moynihan, another defender of the limit. Such are the priorities that are sweeping the Congress these days.

The parents, brothers and sisters of those who will die because of higher speeds will not be contacting their members of Congress right after the tragedies. But construction companies and unions were swarming all over Capitol Hill without any interest in severing the construction part of the legislation from the safety and energy portions.

Nor was the casualty insurance industry exerting its political muscle on Congress. These insurance companies would rather cut back the legal rights of injured victims than push Congress to stay with a proven highway safety result embodied by the 55 mph limit.

What to do now? Citizens in some states can still preserve the life-saving speed limit. Ohio is one such state because Governor Richard Celeste has spoken out in favor of this limit and could veto any legislation to the contrary.

But in every state, laws should be passed that, at least, keep the 55 mph limit on trucks and buses. Your automobile’s rear view mirror should be persuasive on that point.