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 Congressback in 1995, this summer American motorists won't be spending quite asmuchtime shoehorned into their cars and vans as they once did. In 1995 Congressfinally repealed the 1974 energy-crisis-era law that imposed the 55 mphfederal speed limit.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 alittle 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 After the 55 mph speed limit was repealed,safety groups and the auto insurance industry mounted a public relationscampaign to protest higher speed limits. Judith Stone, president ofAdvocates for Highway and Auto Safety, predicted on NBC's Today show that"6,400 added highway fatalities a year and millions of more injuries" wouldresult from the increase. Ralph Nader indignantly warned that "history willnever forgive Congress for this assault on the sanctity of human life."
Good news. There has been no additional blood on the roads as a resultof higher speed limits; nor have our highways become like stretches of theIndianapolis 500 race track. Despite the fact that 33 states have raisedtheir highway speed limits to 65 mph or more since 1995, the highways aresafer today than at any other time since Henry Ford started rolling ModelT's off the assembly line. According to the Federal HighwayAdministration,"The traffic death rate dropped to a record low level in 1997." Thepreliminary 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 speedlimits were raised. Fewer pedestrians were killed by cars in 1997 than in1995. Another indication of increased road safety: auto insurance claimsand premiums fell after speed limits were raised -- belying industryconcernthat raising speed limits would cause higher insurance costs.
In 1997 there were 150 more highway fatalities than before the speedlimits were raised. But even if every one of those additional deaths wasattributable to higher speed limits -- which is highly improbable -- thatnumber is 98 percent below the 6,400 additional deaths predicted byAdvocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
The primary reason there were slightly more deaths on the highways in1997 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 deathsin1997 than there might have been. What is even more impressive is that thefatality rate has fallen since 1995 both in the 17 states that did notraisetheir speed limits (-6.3%) and in those that did (-5.6%).
The 1995 gloom-and-doom prediction by Nader and Stone that 6,400 moreAmericans would die as a result of higher speed limits received massivepress attention. The fact that those predictions have now been provenpreposterously wrong barely gets noticed. But imagine for a moment thatthose predictions had been even half right. The nation's newspapers wouldno doubt have banner headlines proclaiming "Higher Speed Limits KillingThousands of Americans." Ralph Nader would have held a wake/pressconference with scrolls of the names of those killed or maimed by Congress'callous disregard "for the sanctity of human life." Why doesn't the presscover Mr. Nader when he's wrong?
Allowing states to raise their speed limits on highways was always asimple matter of common sense. Not since Prohibition has any federal lawbeen more widely disregarded by the citizenry than the 55 mph speed limit.An estimated 70 percent of Americans regularly disobeyed the law. In thewestern states where you can drive for miles and never see another car, thefederal law was despised -- another sign of the pointy heads in Washingtonmeddling in states' rights. In Montana, where a 55 mph speed limit wasparticularly restrictive, the defiant state legislature passed a lawmandating a maximum $5 penalty for speeding.
"The main issue for our members in supporting higher speed limits wassimply having the right to drive at safe speeds legally and not having toworry constantly about getting pulled over," insists Jim Baxter, spokesmanfor the National Motorists Association. Most American drivers no doubtagree. Higher, but reasonable, speed limits mean we can all get wherewe'regoing sooner.
This summer, for many travel-weary families -- like mine -- that willbe a true blessing.