Not So Fast

law enforcement traffic speed limit gas prices fuel efficiency

AS I WRITE THIS, the price of oil is tumbling. It closed today at $109 per barrel. While the price of fuel has also receded to the below-$4 mark, it hasn't yet dropped to match the price of a barrel of oil.

The freeways are starting to fill up again after a couple of months of pretty hassle-free driving, and it seems that freeway speeds have kicked up another 5 miles per hour. All's well with the world; most folks have adjusted to fuel prices at just under four bucks, and the whole issue of fuel prices seems to have dropped as the topic du jour to something that's only brought up when you have nothing else to talk about (except politics and religion).

At some point fuel prices will come roaring back with a vengeance, and once again people will be searching for ways to dodge the extra expense. In the last few months lots of folks have purchased scooters and small-displacement motorcycles (or resurrected that Yamakawahon that's resided in the back of their garage for the past 15 years) in an effort to save a few bucks at the pump. Others have migrated to smaller cars. My neighbor, for example, just bought two Smart Cars but, alas, hasn't been able to sell two of his three SUVs he's no longer driving.


One of the worst ideas for saving fuel was the 55 mph speed limit Washington imposed on the entire nation back in 1973 and then finally repealed in 1995. The 55 mph nationwide speed limit was developed in the prediction that slower speeds would net the country a 2.2% savings in fuel, but according to the Department of Transportation we only saved about 1% — and some independent studies have put it at less than that.

The worst parts about the 55 mph limit was the 1) interminable time it took you to get anywhere, and the 2) Draconian way many states and municipalities enforced it. It wasn't uncommon to hear of tickets being written for drivers going just one or two miles over the speed limit.

Even after the fuel "crisis" of the 1970s passed, the law was kept on the books due to its "safety" factor. But several studies demonstrated that it wasn't so safe after all. In fact, a recent editorial in The Los Angeles Times states that after the law was repealed in 1995 fatalities dropped for three consecutive years and quotes the California Highway Patrol saying that the number of fatalities involving speed as a primary cause dropped 10.4%.


As bad as the 55 mph limit was, there are people out there who think we should bring it back. I heard columnist Washington Post Charles Krauthammer on some talk show suggest that it should be revived. And Congresswoman Jackie Speir (D-Calif.) has introduced a bill to lower speed limits by 5 mph in both urban and rural areas. This is not a good trend, and frankly doesn't serve the interests of motorcyclists very well from a fuel savings or safety standpoint. For that matter it doesn't serve the population as a whole very well, either.

We've come a long way since 1973. Cars have gotten much more fuel-efficient. People are looking at alternative forms of transportation. Throughout the United States suburbs have sprawled further and further from the places where people work. As we've recently seen, people will look for ways to save fuel without the need for Washington to enact useless speed limit laws.

A new nationwide 55 mph speed limit, as demonstrated by the last one, will not save any significant amount of fuel, nor will it result in huge reductions of accidents or fatalities. We need to nip any movement in this direction in the bud. With all the noise surrounding the general election in November, it would be easy for something like this to slide through Congress. Let your representative aware of your position, and make sure your customers let their feelings on the subject be known as well.

Mike Vaughan is the former publisher of Dealernews. You can reach him at or via