AS the repeal of the federal speed limit goes into effect tomorrow, lead-footed drivers across the nation are letting out a collective sigh of relief.
Anyone ever caught in the snares of a speed trap is whooping for joy over the symbolic victory for hurried Americans everywhere. Safety advocates, however, are predicting a sharp rise in highway fatalities.
The test of what may happen will come soon. Many states are rushing to raise limits or, in some cases, do away with them altogether. Montana, for instance, is jettisoning all speed limits on interstates during the day, though trucks would be held to 65 m.p.h.
At least nine other Western states will jump to 70 m.p.h, while Nevada, Wyoming, and Kansas will change to 75. Farther East, where highway traffic is denser, many states are reluctant to go beyond 55 m.p.h., or at most, 65.
Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar (R) says his state's top speed limit will remain at 65 despite the removal of federal restrictions. "Clearly, speed kills," the governor says.
"I expect a more honest debate at the state level than there was in Congress," says Chuck Hurley, senior vice-president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Arlington, Va. After all, the states have to shoulder the health-care costs associated with automobile injuries.
The debate over what to do is echoing from Wyoming truck stops to Boston radio stations. In their own inimitable way, Tom Magliozzi and brother Ray, hosts of National Public Radio's "Car Talk" program, recently framed the issue.
"What we have done in this country is that we have decided that getting someplace 15 or 20 minutes earlier is more important than life itself," Tom said.
Ray, on the other hand, argued for the validity of higher limits in some Western states. He proposed simply reserving a period of time, say 2 a.m. to 4 a.m., when people can drive any speed they want on designated highways.
There is little doubt that American drivers have a penchant for speed. Even before Congress and the president cut speeders some slack, the 55 m.p.h. limit was considered one of the most flouted laws in the country.
Drivers travel at an average speed of nearly 67 m.p.h. along rural interstates, according to the Federal Highway Administration. The Transportation Department has estimated that repealing federal speed limits will mean 6,400 more highway deaths annually.
Until now, police have often allowed motorists to drive up to 10 m.p.h. over the limit without writing a ticket, though practices vary from state to state. One question is what troopers will do from here.
Some states are vowing to be tough on even the slightest scofflaws. Others don't expect a major change in the number of citations they issue, all of which holds implications for government revenues.
Last year, for instance, California issued 977,519 tickets for speeding on state highways. Though no record exists of how much money that represents, all the funds go to localities.
In Ohio, some legislators view the repeal of the federal speed limit as an opportunity to eliminate "speed traps." State Rep. Mike Fox has introduced a bill to make 65 m.p.h. the uniform limit on all state highways. Now, some stretches of highway are marked at 55 m.p.h. when considered more densely populated or urban. "Many of these local communities approach the situation as if they were panning for gold - forcing motorists who are generally not members of their communities to subsidize their city operations through traffic citations," he says.
Other states are regulating how much of a town's income can come from speeding tickets. Missouri recently passed a law requiring any town that generates more than 45 percent of its annual revenue from traffic fines on state highways to turn over the excess to the county schools.
Macks Creek and Curryville, two small towns along Highway 54 running through central Missouri, are challenging the constitutionality of the new law.
With populations of just over 300 people each, these two small hamlets have a statewide reputation as speed traps. About 70 percent of Curryville's annual revenues last year came from court fines. But Curryville city attorney William Cheeseman says tickets are only issued if drivers exceed the limit by 15 m.p.h. or more.
Others are finding different ways to get around zealous ticketers. A "speedtrap registry" now exists on the World Wide Web of the Internet. It lists small towns where speed limits suddenly drop dramatically and metropolitan locations where police officers frequently stop speeding motorists. Vanderbilt University student Andrew Warner created the registry early this year on a whim. It now catalogs more than 2,000 speed traps in all 50 states.