Would You Drive 55?

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Liberals say Iraq is another Vietnam; conservatives say Barack Obama is Jimmy Carter redux. Abba's a megahit, and Elton John's going to be performing at Madison Square Garden. Had enough of these '70s flashbacks? Brace yourself for another: the return of the national speed limit, courtesy of one of the country's most venerable politicians.

Republican Senator John Warner of Virginia — elected in 1978 — recently expressed interest in the idea of a national speed limit to conserve gasoline. Warner, who is not running for re-election this year, wrote to U.S. Secretary of Energy Sam Bodman, asking, "At what speed is the typical vehicle traveling on America's highways today most fuel-efficient?"

Warner told TIME his concern is for "the many millions and millions [of Americans] of limited means, sitting around their kitchen table trying to figure out how to make ends meet." Unlike long-term alternative energy sources, Warner says, a speed limit would work to bring down gas prices immediately. "Maybe some guy's got a better idea," he says. "But I haven't seen it."

The National Maximum Speed Limit of 55 m.p.h. was created in 1974 when Richard Nixon signed the Emergency Energy Highway Conservation Act. Before that, states had been free to set their own speed limits, but the new law threatened to strip federal highway funding from any state straying above the national standard. The ostensible purpose of this limit was to keep down gas prices, which had been driven through the roof by an OPEC embargo touched off by the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. And with gas prices once again sky-high, Warner isn't alone in talking up a cap on speeding.

Jackie Speier, a first-term Democratic Congresswoman from California, is already on the case. Earlier this month, she introduced a bill that would cap highway speed limits at 60 m.p.h. — 65 in rural areas. It's awaiting a hearing before the House Committee on Transportation. Warner says he hasn't contacted Speier but adds that he'd be willing to "stroll out on the floor" in favor of a speed-limit bill. He has yet to propose a similar bill in the Senate.

The thinking behind Warner's and Speier's speed-limit proposals is simple. At a certain speed, a car's gas mileage begins to drop; the faster you go, the more fuel you burn. Ergo, slow down and save gas. According to fueleconomy.gov, a website run by the Department of Energy, "Each 5 m.p.h. you drive over 60 m.p.h. is like paying an additional $0.30 per gallon for gas." Warner approvingly cites a congressional study showing that "the law resulted in reduced consumption of 167,000 bbl. of petroleum a day." With millions more cars on the road now than there were in 1974, the volume saved could be even greater.

Then there's the issue of safety. Tim Castleman, founder of the pro-limit organization Drive 55 Conservation Groups, notes, "When they instituted [a national speed limit] in 1974, it was a one-year deal, but after one year they found highway deaths had dropped by 4,000." This unexpected benefit, Castleman says, led Congress to make what had been a temporary measure permanent.

Some opponents of the speed limit question the numbers tossed around by Warner, Castleman and others. Indeed, the safety argument looks a bit flimsy on closer examination. Since the 55-m.p.h. limit was repealed in 1995, the number of fatal motor-vehicle crashes has increased by little more than 1,000, while deaths per 100,000 licensed drivers has dipped over the same period.

In a 1999 study for the libertarian Cato Institute, economist Stephen Moore noted that the number of auto crashes actually fell by 66,000 after the 55-m.p.h. limit was lifted. Moore also pointed out that a lower speed limit means more time wasted idling in traffic: "The most valuable resource on this earth is not oil; it's human time."

A law works only when it's obeyed — and how many motorists would comply is an open question. The 1974 law was considered a joke by the many drivers who violated it with impunity. "Real compliance out on the interstate was somewhere around 20%," says Jim Baxter, president of the National Motorists Association. "Eighty percent of the population was exceeding the 55-m.p.h. speed limit!"

Some groups would meet the return of the speed limit with a yawn rather than a groan. Instead of waiting for the government to step in, they've chosen to self-regulate. A number of trucking companies have mandated that their fleets stay at or below 65 m.p.h. Douglas Stotlar, CEO of Con-way Inc., says his company's decision to lower its limit to 62 was because of environmental concerns and because "fuel prices were going to unprecedented levels." Exactly, say foes of a national speed limit: people can be trusted to slow down and conserve gas without the government leaning over their shoulder.

But Warner insists the government has got to do something and do it now. Though he favors drilling offshore, he also says, "That's five, six, seven years out. The pain is tonight, tomorrow night and the night after that. I'm just sensitive to people's pain. Who's got the courage to do something like this?" Warner, who arrived on the national political scene in the oil-starved '70s, thinks that era just might hold the solution to our current energy crisis.