The debate that has roiled in Congress for years over the raising of the 55-mile-per-hour speed limit on United States highways is shifting to the states - and motorists' cars. Across the Western and Plains states, where much of the pressure to raise the limit originated, 65-mile-per-hour signs are expected to begin sprouting like golden rod in the wake of Congress's decision to allow states to do so along rural Interstate highways. Some have already posted new signs.
In other areas, however, particularly along the Eastern seaboard, there is likely to be reticence in state legislatures to scrub the 55 mile-per-hour limit for the same reasons that Congress balked for so long: It saves gasoline, and lives.
At the same time, drivers themselves are reacting to the possibility of higher limits with a mixture of glee and gloom. Some say they are eager to press down on the accelerator a bit more, while others maintain they will not change their driving habits no matter what the limit posted.
Tad Nelson, a packaging materials salesman who logs more than 30,000 miles a year along the rural Interstates of California's Central Valley, says the higher limit, which California is expected to approve and begin posting by June, will enable him to call on several more customers a week - and prove safer.
``If you're going 55, you are a hazard,'' Mr. Nelson says. ``Right now you've got your diehards who drive 55 and those who go 75 to 80.
``The disparity in speeds will be reduced. I'll certainly be stepping up to 65.''
But Ted Brooks, an independent trucker from Baltimore, says he will not push his Mack Superliner beyond the usual 58 to 60 m.p.h. Mr. Brooks, who travels some 100,000 miles a year in the mid-Atlantic states, maintains the slower speeds reduce wear and tear on his rig, save thousands of gallons of fuel annually, and help keep him and others off the fatality list. ``I just don't see any sense in running faster,'' he says. ``Trucks scare people enough as it is.''
States got the go-ahead last Thursday to change their laws when the Senate voted to override President Reagan's veto of an $88 billion highway funding bill. Some 73 percent of the nation's Interstate system is eligible for higher limits. New Mexico became the first to do so when state officials began tacking up signs almost as soon as the Senate vote was tallied.
Higher limits are also expected to go up with roadrunner speed in Colorado, Mississippi, Nevada, North Dakota, and Oklahoma, most of which have already approved 65 m.p.h. laws.
In Texas, Kansas, and Arkansas, governors or road officials have been given the power to change limits. In all, analysts expect close to 40 states to raise limits within the next year.
Not everyone is enamored with the idea, though. The topic remains hotly controversial in at least a half a dozen states, including Massachusetts, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Maryland. Others are considering going to 65, but with strictures beyond those of the federal law.
California is poised to raise the limit for cars but not trucks. New York is debating a 65 m.p.h. bill for the New York City-to-Buffalo Thruway only. Rhode Island and Hawaii have few Interstates that qualify. Delaware has none.
``Out West there is a lot of glee,'' says Rebecca Brady of the National Conference of State Legislatures. ``In the East, there are more safety concerns, and not as many miles of roadway qualify.''
Along the West's endless ribbons of rural Interstate, most motorists are expected to nudge gas pedals downward - in fact, many have already been exceeding the 55 m.p.h. limit.
Past surveys in California have shown that 90 percent of the drivers in rural areas were exceeding the limit.
Then there are those who, either out of conviction or custom, say they will ignore the higher limits.
Truckers might be expected to be jubilant over the raising of rural speed limits in many states. Many of them are.
But a number of trucking companies and associations, which have long opposed raising the limit, plan to adhere to 55 m.p.h.
With the limit going to 65 on many stretches of highway, police are expected to exercise renewed vigilance.
``There is a lot of concern that if you post a limit of 65, people will drive 75,'' says Susan Cowan-Scott of the California Highway Patrol.