BOSTON — THE 55 m.p.h. speed-limit sign may be heading for the scrapheap if some congressmen get their way. But safety advocates argue that more speed means more lost lives.
Two bills in the House and one in the Senate would repeal the National Maximum Speed Limit law altogether, along with a controversial provision that allows Washington to withhold federal-highway funds from those states that defy the law.
Behind increasingly heated rhetoric over safety looms the larger debate over federal versus state control. Each side employs its own safety statistics, often contradicting the other's claims. And driving the issue is money.
Congress should not coerce states to set stringent safety laws by withholding federal funds, says Rep. Scott Klug (R) of Wisconsin, sponsor of the most ambitious reform bill, which would repeal federal laws on speed limits, minimum drinking ages, and those requiring seat belts and motorcycle helmets. ''I do not disagree with the intent of many of these laws,'' Mr. Klug said at a subcommittee hearing earlier this month. ''I am confident that each state would use [its] own judgment to evaluate the merits of each of these proposals.''
But the Clinton administration says it will fight to retain highway-safety laws. At a May 8 press conference, Transportation Secretary Federico Pena said safety laws, such as the 55 m.p.h. speed limit, have saved lives.
''Now is not the time to retreat,'' Mr. Pena said, pointing to government estimates that the speed limit and other safety laws save 10,500 lives and 177,000 injuries annually. Federal authorities say fatalities have jumped 30 percent since 1987, when Congress eased its laws, allowing states to raise some speed limits.
Opponents of the safety laws are seeking ''some misbegotten right to endanger not only their own lives,'' added Rep. Norman Mineta (D) of California, ''but the lives of innocent motorists and the lives of our children.''
The national speed limit was enacted in 1974, a time when gas lines were long and highway fatalities had reached an all-time high. Safety advocates said it would improve highway safety and fuel economy.
But in the years since then, the speed limit has been widely flouted. As many as 7 out of 10 motorists disregard speed limits, according to a recent study conducted for the Department of Transportation. Many drivers feel they can drive five to 10 miles above that limit safely without getting a ticket. And as cars and roads improve, motorists are driving faster each year.
Under public pressure, Congress weakened the funding restrictions in its speed-limit law in 1987, allowing states to set 65 miles-per-hour limits along rural interstate highways. And 42 states have done so, including New York earlier this month.
''Basically, every state that could go to the 65 m.p.h. limit has done so,'' says Katherine Hutt, spokeswoman for the Washington-based Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
And as Congress cuts back on the federal government's remaining power to improve highway safety, many western states may raise their limits to 75 m.p.h. and beyond, she says.
But Jim Baxter says the federal government should get ''out of the speed-limit business.'' The head of the Madison, Wis.-based National Motorists Association says the National Maximum Speed Limit was flawed from the start, reflecting social goals, not the realities of the road.
Any increase in fatalities has more to do with to the increase in overall highway travel, not speed limits, he says. There is even evidence that 65 miles per hour, not 55, may save more lives.
In a study commissioned by the National Research Council in Washington, economist Charles Lave of the University of California at Irvine compared states that had recently enacted 65 m.p.h. limits with those that hadn't. He found that fatality rates dropped 3 to 5 percent in states allowing motorists to drive 65.
''State highway patrol chiefs were saying, 'Let us use the manpower in ways that would be most effective, such as in catching drunken drivers and overworked truckers,''' Dr. Lave says.