If charts of government compliance statistics aren't enough to prove it, a trip from here out Interstate 80 through the sage brush and rattlesnake desolation of Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming proves that very few Americans on this stretch of highway are wasting any time observing the 55 miles-per-hour speed limit. A study of the national speed limit, 10 years after it was imposed, is fueling both sides of the debate over the regulation, prompting several different congressional proposals on the issue -- ranging from outright repeal to stricter enforcement.
The study report, issued last fall by the Transportation Research Board of the National Research Council, suggests that the speed limit has done less to save energy -- one of the purposes for which it was designed -- than it has to save lives.
The authors of the report conclude that while the limit requires an average of seven extra hours on the road annually for each American driver, from 2,000 to 4,000 lives are saved annually because of the 55 m.p.h. limit (out of a total of nearly 50,000 fatalities annually).
Those who conducted the study came up with ambiguous conclusions on the effect increasing the speed limit to 65 m.p.h. on rural Interstate highways would have. They concluded that this sort of increase would account for 500 additional fatalities annually, but said that if an exemption were to be allowed, uncongested Interstate segments in rural areas would be the places to do it.
Statistics in the report show that compliance with the 55 m.p.h. limit generally is low. In 1983, the report indicates, 56.8 percent of the cars on 55 m.p.h. roads exceeded the speed limit. Noncompliance levels were higher than that average in 20 states.
The federal law requires that if at least 50 percent of the cars on the road in a state do not comply with the 55 m.p.h.limit, the state can lose part of its highway funding. To date, no states have lost money because of violations.
US Rep. James J. Howard (D) of New Jersey, chairman of the House Public Works and Transportaion Committee, maintains that he won't allow changes in the speed limit to be considered.
He says any relaxation of the law would lead to increased highway fatalities.
A member of the committee's staff says Congressman Howard is not satisfied with the way states are enforcing the speed limit. The chairman, says the source, wants to focus legislative efforts on making sure states are penalized if they don't get their drivers to slow down.
Proponents of the limit say that polls show more than 70 percent of Americans support the 55 m.p.h. limit.
But several members of Congress from west of the Mississippi suggest that drivers are voting on the issue by pressing on their gas pedals. They suggest that constituents in the sparsely populated regions of the country, where there are fewer accidents, are being asked to pay -- with their time -- for a rule that is tailored for more congested areas.
US Rep. Dave McCurdy (D) of Oklahoma proposes that states be allowed to apply to the federal government to raise the speed limit to 65 m.p.h. on rural segments of Interstate highways. (Three-fourths of the Interstate system is in areas that are considered rural -- that is, not near areas with populations of more than 5,000.)
An aide to Congressman McCurdy says there is evidence that traffic fatalities have decreased since the 1974 speed limit was introduced, but he suggests that credit for much of this goes to highway and auto safety features, the movement to get drunk drivers off the roads, and other factors.
US Rep. James V. Hansen (R) of Utah has introduced legislation that would give states the option to increase the speed limit on noncongested areas to a maximum of 70 m.p.h.
And two Nevada state legislators, Sen. Jacob Hecht (R) and Rep. Barabara Vucanovich (R), have introduced identical bills that would repeal the 55 m.p.h. speed limit and let the states set speed limits up to 70 m.p.h.