Bucking the 55 m.p.h. speed limit. Nevada takes its case for faster-paced driving to court

Nevada is going like 60 to challenge the federal speed-limit law -- well, make that 55. The state is the first to fight the 55-mile-per-hour speed law in court, arguing that the federal government has no right to impose such a limit. Nevada says that power is constitutionally reserved for the states.

The lawsuit, filed last week in federal district court in Reno, comes at a time when a number of states face the loss of federal highway money because of noncompliance with the speed law.

Nevada, too, is perilously close to noncompliance. Last year, state and federal road checks showed 49.9 percent of motorists were driving faster than 55 m.p.h. on Nevada highways. If 50 percent of motorists are driving too fast, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) will declare a state in noncompliance and threaten to cut its federal highway dollars.

To Nevada Attorney General Brian McKay, ``the federal government's actions are best described as pure coercion.'' He says the DOT is using ``the power of the purse'' to force states to comply with an unconstitutional law.

Last week, Nevada very gingerly tested its own power -- by establishing a 70-m.p.h. speed limit on a 33-mile section of Interstate 80.

But before motorists could put pedal to the metal, the DOT notified Nevada it would cut the state's $66 million for road construction. Under terms of the law approved by the 1985 state legislature, the limit would be automatically reduced to 55 m.p.h. if the DOT acted.

Last week's episode leaves Nevada transportation director Garth Dull with ``a couple of souvenirs'' -- two road signs reading ``Speed Limit 70 m.p.h.'' But it also set the stage for the lawsuit, he says.

``There are an awful lot of people in Nevada and the rest of the nation who feel 55 is just too slow,'' Mr. Dull says. His department's study showed the 33-mile desert stretch on I-80 ``is straight, flat, and quite capable of handling speeds up to 70 m.p.h.,'' he adds.

Before Nevada lawmakers enacted the 55 m.p.h. speed law in 1975, the state had no posted speed limits on rural highways. But the first pinch of the energy crisis was being felt, and the federal government urged states to reduce speed limits to conserve gasoline.

Now, with the price of gasoline under $1 a gallon in most of the country, the prevailing arguments have shifted from conservation to safety.

``When you're talking about safety, regardless of what people say, speed kills,'' says Tony Horner, division administrator of the Federal Highway Administration in Nevada. ``It doesn't matter what kind of road you're driving on.''

He cites a National Science Foundation study that indicates an additional 500 people would be killed in traffic accidents each year if the national speed limit were raised from 55 to 65 m.p.h. Of 248 traffic-related deaths in Nevada last year, half were single-car accidents ``where people just lost control and went off the road,'' Mr. Horner says.

Still, the 55 m.p.h. speed law remains generally unpopular among motorists, especially in the rural West where roads are wide, uncongested, and designed to safely accommodate traffic traveling 70 or 80 m.p.h. The attorney general's office in Nevada reports receiving phone calls from citizens in Oklahoma, Texas, Arizona, and California, supporting the challenge.

Two states, Arizona and Vermont, are particularly glad to see Nevada take legal action against the DOT. They are the first states ever to be found in noncompliance with the 55 m.p.h. speed law -- and are close to losing millions of federal dollars for road construction and maintenance.

``We think it's illogical to take away money for programs that are designed to improve highway safety,'' says Paul McGonigle, spokesman for the Arizona Department of Transportation.

Arizona could lose up to $5 million, or 10 percent of its budget for improvement of primary, secondary, and urban roads.

Ultimately, the dispute comes back to the age-old question of states' rights vs. federal authority. States, not the federal government, are best able to determine safe speeds on highways within their jurisdictions, says Kay Serrano of the Nevada attorney general's office.

It's a constitutional question, officials say, that is likely to be finally decided by no lower authority than the US Supreme Court.

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