Speed Doesn’t Kill: The Repeal of the 55-MPH Speed Limit

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In 1995 the Republican Congress repealed the 55‐​mile‐​per‐​hour federal speed limit law. At the time, the highway safety lobby and consumer advocacy groups made apocalyptic predictions about 6,400 increased deaths and a million additional injuries if posted speed limits were raised. Ralph Nader even said that “history will never forgive Congress for this assault on the sanctity of human life.”

But almost all measures of highway safety show improvement, not more deaths and injuries since 1995. Despite the fact that 33 states raised their speed limits immediately after the repeal of the mandatory federal speed limit, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported last October that “the traffic death rate dropped to a record low level in 1997.” Moreover, the average fatality rate even fell in the states that raised their speed limits.

Higher speed limits have not caused one million more auto injuries. In fact, in 1997 there were 66,000 fewer road injuries than in 1995, the year before the speed limits were raised. The injury rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled fell to its lowest level ever recorded in 1997. If the injury rate on the roads had been as high in 1997 as it had been in 1995, approximately 17,000 more Americans would have been injured on the roads.

All of the evidence thus far indicates that Americans have not responded to higher speed limits by converting the highways into stretches of the Indianapolis 500. Any loss of life has been very minimal–and at most a tiny fraction of what had been predicted by the safety lobby. Meanwhile, Americans have saved some 200 million manhours in terms of less time spent on the road. The net economic benefit of raising the speed limit has been between $2 and $3 billion a year.

Stephen Moore

Stephen Moore is director of fiscal policy studies at the Cato Institute.