Western US keeps pushing against 55 m.p.h. limit

A fresh rebellion is brewing in the West and the Plains states over the nation's 55 m.p.h. speed limit, one of the pillars of the energy conservation movement of the 1970s. Arguing that the limit is impractical, particularly along open rural highways, many states are moving to skirt the law by softening penalties for speeding -- even though they risk losing federal highway funds by doing so.

At the same time, new pushes are under way in Congress to narrow the scope of the regulation.

Similar skirmishes between the federal government and rural states have been waged ever since the 55 m.p.h. limit was enacted by Congress in 1974, mainly to save energy in response to the Arab oil embargo. But now, with oil prices low and supplies plentiful, resistance is rising again. There are signs that more and more drivers are ignoring the speed limit.

``If you drive 55 m.p.h. on the Interstate in Nebraska, people will run you over,'' says state Sen. Ernie Chambers, who opposes the limit on certain roadways. ``Nobody complies with it.''

Last week, the Legislature passed a measure raising the speed limit on the Interstate Highway System in Nebraska to 70 m.p.h. It was promptly vetoed by Gov. Robert Kerrey, in part because the state faced the possibility of losing some $130 million in federal funds.

Some states have taken more novel stands. Nevada has offered to make seat belts mandatory if Uncle Sam allows the state to raise the speed limit to 70 m.p.h. on certain roadways. The statute authorizing this is scheduled to go into effect this July. But state officials concede it will probably be taken off the books before the ink dries if the federal government doesn't agree to the bargain -- which so far it shows no inclination of doing.

``What it sounds like at this point is that the whole thing will last about 10 minutes,'' says Wayne Teglia, director of the state Department of Motor Vehicles and Public Safety.

The most common form of rebellion, though, has been for states to reduce penalties for speeding. Starting in August, speeding tickets will no longer be recorded on a driver's record in Minnesota unless the violator is going faster than 65 m.p.h. A similar statute takes effect in South Dakota this summer. In North Dakota, getting caught going 70 m.p.h. brings only a $15 fine -- a penalty not out of line with those in several Western states.

Such steps are risky. If they encourage drivers to step on the gas, states could wind up losing some federal aid. Under current guidelines, a state can lose highway money if more than 50 percent of its drivers exceed the 55 m.p.h. limit. (Speeds are checked by sensors placed in roadways.)

So far, no funds have been withheld. But three states -- Arizona, Maryland, and Vermont -- still face possible cutbacks for exceeding the limit in 1984. And more states may soon find themselves on the no-no list.

``Each year we have more states coming closer to that 50 percent limit,'' says Philip Haseltine, deputy assistant secretary for policy at the US Department of Transportation.

Most states take the threat of a cutoff seriously. Arizona transportation officials recently put in new electronic speed signs that flash when a driver is going over 55 to try to encourage compliance. They also sought higher speeding fines, but the Legislature balked.

In fact, lawmakers have come up with a new gambit to try to avoid Uncle Sam's long arm: The Arizona House recently approved a bill that would make the maximum speed limit in the state 54 m.p.h. The rationale: Because federal law explicitly talks about a 55 m.p.h. limit, the state would be legally exempt from any federal penalties. The measure is not expected to make it to the governor's desk, however.

Opponents of the nationwide law argue that the 55 m.p.h. limit is inappropriate on long stretches of open highway. There also is concern that too many resources are being spent on enforcing a law more drivers seem to be flouting -- which leaves many law-enforcment agencies, even though they try to enforce the law, in a bind.

``We cannot enforce compliance with a law the public won't accept,'' says Susan Cowan-Scott of the California Highway Patrol.

But defenders of the law -- and there are many -- argue that it saves lives, not to mention some energy. Studies have shown that between 2,000 and 4,000 lives were saved during the first few years of the 55 m.p.h. limit. That fact alone has been enough to see the regulation survive repeated attempts to abolish or water it down in Congress. Support for it remains high in public-opinion polls.

This year several bills are being pushed in Congress. One would allow a state to raise the limit up to 70 m.p.h. on the national Interstate system within its jurisdiction. Another would change federal compliance guidelines to put greater emphasis on penalizing the most flagrant speed-limit violators.

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