Whenever the issue of the need to conserve fossil fuels comes to the forefront as it has during the recent run-up of gasoline prices, lawmakers, conservationists and even those concerned about national security hoist the national 55 mph speed limit flag to see who might salute. Not me, brother.
As green as I may like to be, a nationally imposed 55 mph speed limit is a bad idea. Of course it’s well-intentioned, because it would save fuel. There isn’t a vehicle on the road that wouldn’t be at least fractionally more fuel-efficient at 55 instead of 65 or 70 … some more than others. But it’s a bad idea just the same. It didn’t work last time and it won’t work this time. The problem is twofold and unrelated to fuel economy.
The last time a national 55 mph limit was instituted it created a generation of scofflaws that before long made all freeway speed limits unenforceable. Mass disregard for any law will do that. Songs were written. Even the California Highway Patrol came out and said they wouldn’t enforce it. (Broderick Crawford would be so ashamed.) Ever since the genie got out of the bottle about thirty years ago, you can still almost always get away with 10-15 over, even though limits are back to 65 or 70.
Secondly, and partly because of now-ingrained speed limit disregard, a 55 mph speed limit would create a greater speed differential between vehicles and even less lane discipline (if you can believe that) than we now experience. Some well-meaning souls will obey the law and drive 55. The majority will not and will continue to drive 70-80, or faster, feeling that they are being delayed by the 55ers. Some of those 55ers, as happened last time, will feel the need to deputize themselves by becoming vigilante traffic cops … or left lane bandits, depending on your point of view … thus exacerbating the situation with speeders performing more frequent and more dangerous lane changes. A cup of “road rage” anyone? German Autobahns already beat U.S. freeways for fewer accidents per mile driven primarily because of better lane discipline. So we’re going to make things worse here? Any traffic engineer or insurance actuary will tell you that a limited access highway with everyone driving 65 to 70 is safer than one with some driving 55 and some driving 75.
Let’s be honest, conserving resources is nice, but safety should always be the first concern when it comes to traffic laws and highway design. Other than that, keep your car in top condition. Replace it with a more efficient model when the time comes … or sooner, if you’re so inclined. Use public transit. Smoke ’em if you got ’em. But don’t allow another nationally mandated 55 mph speed limit. It was dumb once. It’ll be Jim Carey and Jeff Daniels this time.