San Francisco — Under pressure from the West, the 55 mile-an-hour speed limit may be rolling toward Boot Hill. The speed limit issue -- felt most keenly along the straight, lonely roads of the Western states -- is expected to heat up in the next few months. It could provide an early indication of Ronald Reagan's policies on states' rights and energy conservation.
The issue came to the fore recently when Uncle Sam presented seven states with a federal "speeding ticket." Studies showed that a high percentage of drivers in the states -- all in the West or Southwest -- are violating the law. The could cost those states millions of dollars in federal highway funds.
The loss, however, may never come about.
The president-elect has indicated he opposes the federal speed limit. Even if he doesn't abolish it -- as the Republican platform urges -- he can prevent penalties against the Western states. Or he could turn control of speed limits back to the states.
Opposition to the 55 m.p.h. limit has grown despite studies which claim the tens of thousands of lives have been saved and billions of gallons of fuel conserved as a result of the law.
Without the limit, Western officials say, drivers in the West would quickly return to the days of higher speed.
Even now, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) says, California, Texas, New Mexico, Montana, Wyoming, Arizona, and Nevada are not complying with 1978 legislation requiring that at least 40 percent of drivers go no faster than 55.
If drivers in those states do not slow down during the final quarter of 1980, up to 5 percent of federal highway funds destined for those seven state treasuries could be withheld. Under the law (passed in the wake of the 1974 Arab oil embargo) the number of drivers complying with the federal speed limit must be at least 70 percent by 1983. Noncompliance could cost California $11 million a year, Texas $8.5 million, and lesser (although significant) amounts for the other states.
Because people are driving less, thereby reducing in income from state gasoline taxes, many states already are facing highway revenue shortfalls even without penalties from Washington. Thus, as one California transportation official says, "Every million dollars counts and counts a lot."
Recent federal studies indicates clear beneficial results from the 55 m.p.h. limit. A new DOT report says 41,951 lives have been saved since the lower limit was first imposed as an emergency measure in 1974.
There were 54,615 highway fatalities in 1973 and 51,083 last year, even though the number of motor vehicles in the United States rose 22 percent over the same period. High fuel costs, of course, have forced many people to drive fewer miles -- which could also account for some of the improvement.
Federal officials this year also reported the 3.4 billion gallons of fuel per year now is being saved through slower driving. Research has shown that automobile fuel consumption drops as much as 39 percent when drivers reduce speed from 70 m.p.h. to 55.
Much of the opposition to the lower speed limit comes from truckers. They say that despite the fuel and maintenance savings, they lose money by having to drive longer hours between destinations. But a DOT study to be released early in 1981 argues that this is not the case.
One of the main reasons that California has the worst speed record in the country is that state highway patrol officers are the only ones in the country not allowed to use radar to nab speeders. Under pressure from the Teamsters union and some independent truckers, the legislature has refused the California Highway Patrol's request for radar equipment.
The Texas Department of Public Safety (highway patrol) last year began using unmarked cars with radar to catch more speeders. But legislators have attached a rider to the 1981-83 state budget restricting the use of these unmarked cars.
A highway department spokesman in New Mexico echoes officials in other Western states when she speculates that her state would not retain the 55 m.p.h. limit if federal control is lifted, even though officials there acknowledge that lives and energy have been saved.
"I think that if Reagan's group decides to do away with the 55 mile per hour speed limit, people will turn loose again," said Karleen Boggio. "It's hard to keep them down now."
Reagan does not necessarily have to seek repeal of the 55 m.p.h. limit. Federal law allows the government to postpone withholding federal highway funds if states show that they would suffer "hardship" as a result.
The law also requires that federal officials take into account "variability in speedometer readings" when making statewide speed surveys. If a variability of six miles per hour were allowed (as the auto industry is urging), then all 50 states immediately would be considered in compliance. This also would remove the threat of withheld funds.
As yet, federal and state officials do not know what course the new administration will follow.
Monitor contributor Clara Germani writes: The temptation to creep over 55 is perhaps hardest to resist on the open highway in the West where "there's nothing between you and the next city but 300 miles and the dust," says Robert Beasley, director of special projects for the US Department of Energy.
Keeping the speedometer on "the double nickel" can actually be more dangerous than speeding on a long haul, contends US Sen. Alan Simpson (R) of Wyoming. "In the huge expanses of wide open spaces . . . you get mesmerized" by taking a leisurely 55 m.p.h. pace for hours at a time on an unpopulated roadway.
On the other hand, Eastern drivers may find it no problem to maintain the 55 m.p.h. limit on congested roadways, he says.
This diversity of driving conditions may be a clue that a uniform speed limit is impractical, contends Senator Simpson.
Simpson, who with Sen. S. I. Hayakawa (R) of California, unsuccessfully sponsored a bill to repeal federal speed limits last year, says he is encouraged by the Republic platform and his party's election sweep, which may make Congress more receptive to leaving the choice of speed limits to the states.
Meanwhile, Senator Hayakawa is preparing a bill to repeal the 55 m.p.h. speed limit.
According to an aide, he will introduce the measure when Congress convenes Jan. 5.
Although there is concern among transportation and energy officials that the conservation and safety advances tied to the lower speed limit may be diminished , some admit privately that various speed limits, including those higher than 55 m.p.h., probably are more practical.
"Some of the highways are so safe already that it would hardly affect the safety on those highways if speed was increased slightly," admits Joseph Leep, traffic and safety engineer for the American Automobile Associations, which represents 21 million US drivers.
Simpson indicates that higher speeds on the wide interstate highways, especially in isolated areas, probably would not affect traffic fatalities. He is skeptical of claims that traffic safety has increased in the six years since the 55 m.p.h. limit was instituted -- at least as it applies in his home state, where highways fatalities have not decreased. He also contends the fuel savings achieved by driving 10 m.p.h. slower are "minuscle." Hayakawa aides say the fuel savings gained by driving 55 instead of 65 is 0.5 percent of the energy consumed in the US in one year.