The 55 m.p.h. debate kicks into overdrive

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When Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole announced $7 million worth of speeding fines last month, she opened up a Pandora's box. On the face of it, she was only doing her job. Since 1974, when the Arab oil embargo spawned a number of fuel-conservation measures, the nation's top speed limit has stood at 55 miles an hour. Her department has been charged with monitoring how well each state enforces that limit.

It cannot have been a pleasant task. In recent years, say departmental reports, the number of cars exceeding posted speed limits nationwide has been rising rapidly. Any driver of interstate highways can confirm that: These days, cars still going 55 m.p.h. are about as rare as gas station attendants who still wash windshields. But the department's statistics (which, some observers say, may have been conveniently cooked to avoid showdowns with the states) have never before given cause for punitive action.

Now the department has decided to withhold funds from two offenders: Arizona and Vermont. Because more than half the vehicles in those states exceed the posted 55 m.p.h. limit, Arizona stands to lose up to $5.1 million, and Vermont $1.9 million, from their annual shares of federal highway funds.

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The magnitude of the threatened cuts has kicked a once-idling debate into high gear. The question: Should ``55'' be repealed?

There is no obvious answer. In fact, the Dole-Pandora box has proved to be a set of boxes within boxes. Open the outermost box, and you find the tortoises and the hares having at each other. Fifty-five, say the tortoises, is just fine. It saves not only gas but lives: In the 10 years following 1972, deaths per 100 million miles driven declined from 4.3 to 2.8 in the United States. Besides, increasing the limit saves only minutes at the end of most drives.

The hares see it differently. Gas is now plentiful, they say. The death toll, they add, can't be related to the lower speed since today's drivers don't actually drive at that speed. The better safety record, they argue, simply reflects the fact that cars are safer and seat-belts more common, and that shifting population trends have put fewer young people (who statistically have more accidents) behind the wheel.

Inside that box, however, is another. Open it, and out pops the legal-ethical issue. Should laws remain on the books which can't adequately be enforced? Does 55 lack enforcement because the public has turned against it? Does its presence make hypocrites of us all -- of otherwise law-abiding people who habitually speed; of stores that sell radar-warning devices that encourage drivers to break the law; of policemen who wink at all but the most egregious offenders; of some state governments that impose only token fines for speeds up to 70 m.p.h.; of the Department of Transportation itself as it skates around its mandate to penalize the baddies? Is this action by Mrs. Dole -- who comes from Kansas, where the speed limit once was 80 m.p.h., and who was appointed by a President elected on a platform that opposed the federal limit -- simply intended to spark a debate and overturn the law?

Open still another box, and out crawls the issue of regionalism. Fifty-five is something of an East-West debate. The fact is that 70 miles an hour feels faster in New Hampshire than it does in New Mexico. Easterners sometimes have difficulty understanding the mental impact of the long, flat ribbons of highway between widely separated Western farming communities. Westerners sometimes don't realize that some highways in the East have to penetrate populated areas or follow old, curving rights-of-way. Some reformers call for a dual-track law that would raise limits on rural stretches, many of which are in the West.

That, of course, opens yet another box: the federal-local debate. Proponents of a federally mandated law preach the virtues of a uniform standard throughout the land. Their opponents, often of a get-the-feds-off-my-back stripe, call for a return of the speed-limit question to state hands, where most other motor vehicle regulations now reside.

If these boxes summarized all the arguments, the debate would be interesting but routine. But there remains an innermost box. Open it, and a fascinating philosophical issue emerges. It has to do with our nearly unqualified acceptance of speed -- any kind of speed -- as an absolute good. The rapid worker, the quick mind, the hottest car, the fastest gun in the West -- ``speedolatry,'' it seems, has captivated us, and life has taken on the metaphor of one huge race.

Little wonder, then, that we often assume that faster is better. That may sometimes be true. But is it true about highway speeds? If a higher limit makes us more efficient travelers, better businessmen and women, and more alert thinkers, it will help. If it simply gives us an excuse to sleep later before we have to leave -- and then wear ourselves to a frazzle as we drive, only to arrive all a-jangle -- then it won't. There is still something to be said for the almost-forgotten virtues of a gentle pace. A Monday column

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