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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.