BOSTON — FIVE states could lose millions of dollars of federal highway money because too many of their drivers are exceeding the 55 m.p.h. speed limit, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Federal transportation officials say that more than half the drivers surveyed last year in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, California, and Maryland exceeded the limit. As a result, these states could lose as much as 10 percent of federal highway money in 1991, according to federal law.
The issue has been controversial in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Maryland because these states have retained the 55 m.p.h. speed limit on rural Interstates and kept up strong safety records. Transportation officials in all three states feel unfairly targeted because there is no requirement to monitor speeders on 65 m.p.h. highways. States with the higher speed limits are less likely to lose highway funds.
``It's just ludicrous,'' says William Lazarek, deputy transportation commissioner in Connecticut. ``The ones with the 65 [limit] don't have to monitor and report at all.''
Most states adopt 65 m.p.h. limit
There are about 40 states that have raised the speed limit to 65 m.p.h. In the 1987 law that allowed states to adopt the 65 m.p.h. limit, Congress did not include the highway speeding surveying requirement that went into effect for highways with 55 m.p.h. speed limits. Politics played a key role in that decision, say congressional aides. The House Public Works Committee is currently working on legislation to include monitoring and sanctioning for drivers on 65 m.p.h. highways.
The five sanctioned states, meanwhile, must present federal officials with their plans to get tougher with speedy drivers. If future statistics show compliance with the law, the states will not lose highway funding, says Harry Skinner, of the traffic engineering division of the Federal Highway Administration. In fact, he says, no states have lost federal highway money since the 55 m.p.h. law went into effect in 1973.
``The objective is to get speeds down,'' Mr. Skinner says.
But the fact that the law discriminates against states that have kept the low speed limit has drawn attention to efforts to change state speeding laws and ticketing systems.
In Massachusetts, for example, state Rep. Anthony Scibelli (D) is sponsoring a bill to increase to speed limit to 65 m.p.h. on two sections of the Massachusetts Turnpike. He says the public favors a raise in the limit because most drivers travel faster than the 55 m.p.h. highway limit anyway.
``Let's get back to reality, do what the people think is fitting and what the public wants,'' he says.
Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, however, has strongly opposed raising the limit for safety reasons. He and other state officials point out that there are not many miles of rural highway in the state. Raising the limit on only certain sections of the highway would create a bad ``checkerboard'' pattern of speed limits, they say.
``It would send a bad message to motorists who would think they could drive 65 anywhere,'' say Jeff Grossman, spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety.
Such safety concerns are echoed by Connecticut transportation officials. By maintaining the 55 m.p.h. speed limit, roads have been safer and accidents fewer, they say. The state's highway fatality rate, for example, was sixth lowest in the country in 1988, according to Mr. Lazarek.
``If a state is well below the national average in terms of the number of deaths, injuries, and fatalities, then it should not be sanctioned,'' he says.
Hefty fines deter speeding
Transportation officials in both states say despite being sanctioned by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, state enforcement has been strong. Both states are now using aircraft surveillance and each has the same graduated ticket system. This requires speeders to pay $50 for the first 10 miles over the speeding limit and $10 more for every mile thereafter. Under such a system the average speeding ticket can be more than $100.
Such hefty fines have angered some motorists who say the measure was launched by Governor Dukakis to raise revenue. Richard Valentine of the Massachusetts Motorists Association favors a state referendum to lower speeding-ticket fines. Besides lower speeding tickets, his 10,000-member organization, based in Braintree, Mass., supports Representative Scibelli's bill to raise the speed limit. ``The speed limit is abusive,'' he says. ``It's a revenue-oriented traffic policy.''