Keep the national speed limit

Anew push is likely to begin next year in Congress to increase the speed limit on federal highways, with publication this week of a federal report on the subject. A basic point in the new discussion is expected to be one that has remained unresolved in the 10 years since the maximum speed was lowered from 70 to 55: Should the limit be the same in the relatively rural areas of the West as in the more congested East? The report says setting higher limits on rural roads might be beneficial on balance.

We disagree: The limit should remain 55 nationwide. That's fast enough on any highway, given the occasional blowout or other mechanical aberration to which automobiles are subject at high speed. Lower speeds save energy: on rural Interstates approximately 10,000 barrels of oil a year, according to the new study by government and industry specialists. Saving energy was the purpose of reducing the limit, during the 1973-74 oil embargo.

Slower speeds have also produced safer highways, as federal and private agencies keep reporting.

And there's a practical reason for keeping the same limit in all areas of the United States: Trying to decide precisely which areas are sufficiently rural to merit a higher speed becomes impossible, as federal authorities realized a decade ago when they decided on one national standard.

Having said all this, we still recognize the concern of Western and plains states with plenty of wide open spaces. To motorists on those Interstates there is great temptation to zip along far faster than the law permits.

Actually many drivers across the nation now routinely travel above the Interstate's speed limit by five or six miles an hour, to the point that on many stretches this has become the de facto permissible maximum. The new report makes an excellent suggestion: that states concentrate on catching and prosecuting those drivers who zoom along far faster, 10 and even 20 miles above the limit. Whereas speed regulations, like all other laws, should be fully obeyed, it is the really lead-footed driver who constitutes the more dangerous problem.

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