We can’t drive 55…or 65

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.)


  1. Elmo

    Bob Herbert summed it up today in the NYT:
    Energy efficiency and conservation.
    We know what we should be doing.
    What we don’t have is the leadership,
    the common sense or the will to get it done.

  2. JeremiahJones

    Hey, Crisp, do you really think anyone expects to live long enough to complete the trip from Texarkana to El Paso at 55 MPH? We’re Americans, fer crissakes. We will slow down only after they pry our cold dead Birkenstock-clad toes from the accelerator pedal.

    I have a modest proposal, hardly less impractical than expecting politicians to do the hard thing (ie., roll back the speed limit): Make speed contingent on MPG. In other words, the more efficient your car, the faster you are allowed to drive. In other other words, Suburbans=55mph, Honda S2000s=85mph, Toyota Prius=110mph. I’m sure a little fiddling with the software governing our engines could accomplish this pretty easily.

    Anecdotally, my 4Runner’s V6 gets ~20MPG at 75, and this increases to ~24MPG if I drive 55. (Of course, the Arabs would have to declare war on us if we succeeded in paring our national energy budget by 20%! — oh wait, no worries, we’ve already declared war on them….)

  3. pondering_it_all

    I’m sure the American Trucking Association would love to set the national speed limit at 65 for all vehicles, since in many states the TRUCK speed limit is actually lower. For example, in California anything with more than two axles and any vehicle towing anything is limited to 55 mph. Raising their speed limit from 55 to 65 would increase their fuel consumption, if they ever obeyed the law!

    If you really want to enforce lower fuel consumption and increased public safety, require governers on all vehicles set to just above the maximum legal speed. In California, restricting all the cars to 70 mph and the big trucks to 55 mph would make a big difference. You could even get fancy and have inner city freeways use little transmitters to send a lower maximum speed to the governers to reflect their 65 or 55 mph limits.

  4. muzz

    Perhaps things are different on the open roads of Texas, but in the Northeast, aging roads do not permit 75-85, though many motorists race along daily…with deadly results.

    I’m with you on the 55 mph…especially on the aging and narrow PA Turnpike…where a deadly accident left us stopped between exits for more than 3 hours last Labor Day weekend.


  5. douin

    Have you known this Administration to ask for anything as sensible as a National speed limit ..one that can be enforced quite easily with very high fines for Speeders. If a few hundred of them, nationwide, received tickets of $ 500 each time they were stopped for exceeding the Speed limit of say…65 miles per gal., I am sure we would save enough oil to guarantee lower prices…and a lowered occupancy rate of our hospital. I daresay the number of speeders would drop drastically and the money raised from the fines could be used on repairing our roadways that are in dreadful disrepair. Or is this too simple to gain traction ?