With the summer travel season now upon us, millions of Americans are preparing for long-distance road trips. And, of course, no family vacation would be complete without two or three kids bouncing about in the back seat asking every 10 minutes, “Are we there, yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?”
Thanks to an almost forgotten law passed by the Republican Congress back in 1995, this summer American motorists won’t be spending quite as much time shoehorned into their cars and vans as they once did. In 1995 Congress finally repealed the 1974 energy-crisis-era law that imposed the 55 mph federal speed limit. Thanks to 65 and 75 mph speed limits on highways, Americans now spend hundreds of millions fewer hours on the road each year. Those family getaways to the beach or to grandma’s house are now just a little more tolerable.
But are they as safe? After the 55 mph speed limit was repealed, safety groups and the auto insurance industry mounted a public relations campaign to protest higher speed limits. Judith Stone, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, predicted on NBC’s Today show that “6,400 added highway fatalities a year and millions of more injuries” would result from the increase. Ralph Nader indignantly warned that “history will never forgive Congress for this assault on the sanctity of human life.”
Good news. There has been no additional blood on the roads as a result of higher speed limits; nor have our highways become like stretches of the Indianapolis 500 race track. Despite the fact that 33 states have raised their highway speed limits to 65 mph or more since 1995, the highways are safer today than at any other time since Henry Ford started rolling Model T’s off the assembly line. According to the Federal Highway Administration, “The traffic death rate dropped to a record low level in 1997.” The preliminary state data for 1998 suggest further safety gains.
Almost every measure of safety has shown strong improvement (see table). There were 66,000 fewer injuries on the roads in 1997 than before the speed limits were raised. Fewer pedestrians were killed by cars in 1997 than in 1995. Another indication of increased road safety: auto insurance claims and premiums fell after speed limits were raised — belying industry concern that raising speed limits would cause higher insurance costs.
In 1997 there were 150 more highway fatalities than before the speed limits were raised. But even if every one of those additional deaths was attributable to higher speed limits — which is highly improbable — that number is 98 percent below the 6,400 additional deaths predicted by Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
The primary reason there were slightly more deaths on the highways in 1997 than in 1995 is that Americans are driving more than they used to. Adjusting for the number of miles traveled, there were 2,000 fewer deaths in 1997 than there might have been. What is even more impressive is that the fatality rate has fallen since 1995 both in the 17 states that did not raise their speed limits (-6.3%) and in those that did (-5.6%).
The 1995 gloom-and-doom prediction by Nader and Stone that 6,400 more Americans would die as a result of higher speed limits received massive press attention. The fact that those predictions have now been proven preposterously wrong barely gets noticed. But imagine for a moment that those predictions had been even half right. The nation’s newspapers would no doubt have banner headlines proclaiming “Higher Speed Limits Killing Thousands of Americans.” Ralph Nader would have held a wake/press conference with scrolls of the names of those killed or maimed by Congress’ callous disregard “for the sanctity of human life.” Why doesn’t the press cover Mr. Nader when he’s wrong?
Allowing states to raise their speed limits on highways was always a simple matter of common sense. Not since Prohibition has any federal law been more widely disregarded by the citizenry than the 55 mph speed limit. An estimated 70 percent of Americans regularly disobeyed the law. In the western states where you can drive for miles and never see another car, the federal law was despised — another sign of the pointy heads in Washington meddling in states’ rights. In Montana, where a 55 mph speed limit was particularly restrictive, the defiant state legislature passed a law mandating a maximum $5 penalty for speeding.
“The main issue for our members in supporting higher speed limits was simply having the right to drive at safe speeds legally and not having to worry constantly about getting pulled over,” insists Jim Baxter, spokesman for the National Motorists Association. Most American drivers no doubt agree. Higher, but reasonable, speed limits mean we can all get where we’re going sooner.
This summer, for many travel-weary families — like mine — that will be a true blessing.