In 1984, I split the driving with a friend on a trip from north Minnesota to south Texas, some 1,500 miles. He cruised between 75 and 80 mph, with a watchful eye on the rearview mirror and on the radar detector.
When it was my turn, I carefully held the speedometer on 55 mph, in observance of the national maximum speed law, which was put into effect in 1974 in response to the Arab oil embargo. After 10 minutes with me behind the wheel, my friend would begin to fidget. I didn’t drive much on that trip.
Call me a geek, but I was a victim of my upbringing. My father was a strict observer of the 55 mph speed limit, as well as all other laws; it wouldn’t have occurred to him to cheat on his taxes, and he was so honest that he would drive across town to return a dollar to a merchant who had accidentally undercharged him.
Some people would call this compulsive rigidity, but I prefer to think of it as scrupulous homegrown integrity that emerged from a mix of a simple childhood on a Texas farm and the shared privations of the Depression and World War II, with more than a dash of old-time religion thrown in.
I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that this sort of uncompromising allegiance to the rule of law, as well as the willingness to sacrifice one’s own desires in service to the community, isn’t as common today as it was in my father’s generation. If so, Virginia Sen. John Warner’s recent suggestion that the country revisit the idea of a national speed limit isn’t likely to get very far. In fact, in spite of diminishing oil supplies, the high price of gas, and all the evils attendant to our reliance on foreign oil, the country doesn’t appear to be in a mood to consider something as sensible as lowering the speed limit.
I don’t intend to make a case for the 55 mph speed limit, but it did have its virtues. Critics argue that it didn’t save as much oil or as many lives as its proponents promised. But they often make the additional objection that the 55 mph speed limit was widely violated. So how do we know how much oil or how many lives it might have saved if more Americans had been as conscientious as my father in their respect to the law?
In any case, basic physics provides us with several incontrovertible facts: slower speeds require less energy and, therefore, less gas. And when objects guided by rational thought — like cars — move more slowly, they are less likely to collide. And when they do collide, the damage is less severe. This translates into saved gas and saved lives. Always.
But I suspect our objections to a lower speed limit are more emotional than rational, and in spite of our bad energy situation and the deaths of about 120 people every day in car accidents — that’s every single day — the citizenry is unlikely to accept a 55 mph speed limit. And I don’t suggest it.
But consider the recommendations of the American Trucking Associations, which has represented the interests of professional truckers and trucking associations — real driving experts — for more than 70 years. The ATA supports the enactment of a national speed limit of 65 mph for all vehicles and the requirement that all trucks be equipped with governors that limit their speeds to 68 mph.
The ATA argues that these measures would reduce diesel consumption by at least 27 percent and save 2.8 billion gallons over the next decade, as well as 31 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions. When cars are factored in, the savings are much, much greater in gas and, I suspect, in lives.
So if Americans can’t tolerate 55 mph, how about 65? It’s not much of a sacrifice.
But if we do something as reasonable and patriotic as this, enforcement is essential. The real killer is the speed differential between law-abiders and speeders, so let’s hit the speeders hard and use their fines to help finance research into nonhydrocarbon solutions to our energy dilemma.
(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail: jcrisp(at)delmar.edu.)