Untrue at Any Speed

This article was published in National Review Online, Dec. 2, 2003.

I've always argued that the two most important, life-improving reforms passed by the Republican Congress were the capital-gains tax cut and the repeal of the federal 55-miles-per-hour speed-limit law. Today almost all states have gotten rid of the "double nickel" 55-mph restrictions, and have raised their speed limits on local and interstate highways to 65 or 75 mph. This has led to shorter commutes for those of us who travel by car, and more time on the job or at our kids' soccer games.

The opponents of higher speed limits, like Ralph Nader and Joan Claybrook and insurance companies, said that it would cause 6,000 more deaths per year They said Republicans in Congress would have "blood on their hands" for their callous disregard for human life. But guess what: In every year since the speed limits were raised, death rates per mile traveled on the highways have fallen.

That's why I was shocked to see that the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety released a highly publicized study suggesting that the 1995 increase in highway speed limits has led to an increase in highway fatalities . The study found that deaths on rural highways had risen by 35 percent because of the new law. There is an old saying in statistics that if you torture the data enough, you can always make them confess. This is what the Insurance Institute was forced to do to conclude that deaths increased after speed limits were raised.

A comprehensive Cato Institute study that I coauthored came to exactly the opposite conclusion. The highways today are safer, not more dangerous, than ever before. The fatality rate on the nation's roads was the lowest in recorded history in 2001; there were also 400,000 fewer injuries.

If anything, it would seem that unreasonably low posted speed limits are the real dangers to our health and safety. Over the last 35 years, the highway fatality rate has steadily declined, excepting only the period from 1976 to 1980, which followed the imposition of the national 55-mph speed limit in 1974.

There is also no evidence that states with higher speed limits saw an increase in deaths. States with 65 and 75-mph speed limits saw a 12-percent decline in the fatality rate after speed limits were raised. Some of the sharpest declines in fatality rates were in states that raised their limits to 75 mph, the highest in the country. These include Utah, with a 27.7-percent decline, Nevada at 23.7 percent, and Arizona at 21.1 percent.

How is it that higher speed limits have not led to more deaths? One reason is that cars and roads are safer than ever before, which allows us to travel at faster speeds. In the last decade, auto firms have built cars with better anti-lock brakes, better power steering, and better crash protections. Moreover, what causes fatal crashes is bad driving habits: driving too slowly in the left lane, talking on the cell phone and ignoring the road, driving while tired, and worst of all, drinking and driving. It is a timeless rule of the road: Regardless the speed limit, there will always be bad drivers.

Also, higher speed limits haven't increased deaths because speeds have not risen significantly on the highways. People were already driving well over the posted limits even when we had 55-mph restrictions. The 55-mph speed-limit law was probably the most disobeyed in American history.

The good news is that when you're speeding on the highway nowadays, you can keep focused on the road before you -- and not the rear view mirror -- to scan for cops. We all know that's the real reason behind increased highway safety.