The federal agency whose job is to make sure states comply with the nation's 55 mile-per-hour speed limit has been taken to court amid charges that the agency is ignoring widespread speeding violations across the country.
At issue in the suit, filed by the Washington-based Auto Safety Council and the group Public Citizen, is a recent decision by the Federal Highway Administration (FHA) to grant federal highway funds to Massachusetts despite an active controversy over whether the Bay State is successfully enforcing the federal 55 m.p.h. limit.
Though the suit focuses on Massachusetts, its impact may be felt nationwide: It could force the FHA to more strictly enforce the federal speed law. The case will be watched with particular interest in Western states. With their wide-open spaces, these states have long opposed the 55 m.p.h. rule. Several Western states have gone the route of Nevada, which levies a $5 fine for ''energy wasting'' on anyone caught driving between 55 and 70 m.p.h. (The penalty is higher for those driving over 70.)
Five years ago the federal government, in an effort to encourage states to abide by the national speed limit, set up regulations and penalties for states lax in enforcing the nation's 55 m.p.h. speed limit. The little-known FHA regulations permit the FHA to withhold up to 5 percent of a state's federal highway funds if more than half of the state's drivers exceed the limit.
The law has been on the books since 1978. Since then each of the 50 states has conducted annual road surveys, and results show at least 50 percent of all drivers were traveling at or below the speed limit. They all did, that is, until 1982, when a Massachusetts survey showed that 56.5 percent of the state's drivers were speeding.
Under the regulation, the federal government may withhold as much as $3.7 million in highway money. The state expects to receive $365 million in 1983.
The state responded to the apparent violation by challenging the accuracy of its own survey. State officials made some ''technical adjustments'' to the survey equipment after consulting with the FHA. They also said a greater emphasis was placed on speed-limit enforcement. The results of the revised test showed that 47.1 percent of highway drivers were speeding - still high, but within the mandated 50 percent limit.
Still, there remained questions within the FHA about the state's technical adjustments. A review was initiated, but before federal officials could determine the accuracy of the second survey, the FHA released Massachusetts' 1983 highway allocation.
An FHA official says the agency has been slow in the case, partly because of a backlog of work.
Critics say the Massachusetts case is only one example of what they say is a nationwide problem. They say the FHA has a ''sweetheart relationship'' with state highway authorities and is reluctant to use its congressionally-mandated powers to enforce the 55 m.p.h. maximum. They question the accuracy of state highway surveys - particularly the widespread use of what they call ''fudge factors'' to adjust survey results to within the range of compliance.
In addition, they say the atmosphere in Washington under the Reagan administration - which took office on a platform opposed to the 55 m.p.h. rule - is less than zealous on the issue.
''We feel it is important that the agency send a clear message to the states that they are going to enforce the 55 mile-an-hour speed limit,'' says Katherine Hall, an attorney for the Auto Safety Council.
Some observers give Massachusetts a 50-50 chance in the FHA review, which is still pending. But the compliance issue is almost certain to arise again next year - though not in Massachusetts. According to a federal highway official, preliminary data from traffic surveys indicate that up to five states face a possible cutoff in funds because of the speed-limit issue. Officials declined to name the states, but said Massachusetts was not one of them.
The nationwide speed limit started in 1974 as a fuel-saving response to the Arab oil embargo. Since then safety groups have said the measure also has helped save more than 50,000 lives in the past decade by contributing to greater highway safety.
Opponents of the 55 m.p.h. rule say federal highways have been designed to handle traffic traveling at 70 m.p.h. They also say that long stretches of sparsely traveled highway - such as in many Western states - can accommodate cars at 70 as safely as at 55.