Politics & Government

55-mph speed limit may have found its Washington patron

Will the wide-open spaces be traveled at 55 m.p.h.?
Will the wide-open spaces be traveled at 55 m.p.h.? Alan Solomon / Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON — Is the double-nickel speed limit ready for a comeback?

Congress thus far has shown no movement toward resurrecting the 55-mph speed limit, but one of the Senate's senior members — Republican John Warner of Virginia — says it's time to start the conversation about an energy-saving national speed limit to help spare Americans from usurious fuel costs.

The 55-mph limit was imposed by federal law during the energy crisis of the mid-1970s, remained in effect for 20 years and ultimately was booted off the roadways by Congress in 1995 amid near-universal contempt among motorists.

Warner hasn't specified what a new limit should be, but he points out that Americans saved 167,000 barrels of petroleum a day when the 55-mph speed limit was in effect. He told fellow senators this week that he'll probably proceed with legislation after the Energy Department determines the most fuel-efficient speed limit for the nation's highways.

"We have to take the lead in Congress, and hopefully the president will join," Warner said on the Senate floor. "We have that duty."

Among those joining the call for a national speed limit are truckers, who've been hammered by diesel fuel costs expected to reach $135 billion this year, $22 billion more than last year.

American Trucking Associations, which represents 3.5 million truck drivers and 37,000 trucking companies, is asking Washington to set a national limit of 65 mph. A 10-mile reduction from 75 mph, spokesman Clayton Boyce said, would lower fuel consumption by 27 percent.

Since 55 was abolished as the national speed limit, states have been free to set their own. The limit in most states, according to the American Automobile Association, is 65 or 70, and several states allow 75. In desolate stretches of far West Texas, motorists are allowed to do 80.

Try driving 55 on any stretch of open road in America today and it's easy to see why a return to the double nickel — as it was nicknamed during its two-decade life span — seems remote. But a Web site operator based in Sacramento, Calif., who's an authority on the 55-mph speed limit says attitudes are shifting rapidly as the cost of gasoline climbs.

"There has been a tremendous uptick in interest," said Tim Castleman, whose Internet-based Drive 55 Conservation Project urges drivers to keep the needle no higher than 55. Responses to his Web site, which Castleman said ran about even between pro and con, offer an unscientific gauge of the current mood toward the 55-mph limit.

A writer from St. Louis said 55 ``is the silver bullet to stop these crazy gas prices.''

At the other end of the spectrum came this declaration: "I choose to drive 80 mph with my SUV and will continue to do that regardless of the posted speed limit."

In Congress, the idea of reinstituting a national speed limit was below the radar for most lawmakers until Warner began endorsing it. Many lawmakers, particularly those from big states, are likely to be unwilling to resurrect any variation of a highway law that the driving public widely condemned and ultimately ignored.

"It's not a real solution," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., said the 55-mph limit "didn't work so well the last time," though he acknowledged that it would save fuel.

Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., said drivers already were conserving by carpooling, limiting trips and slowing down. "I do not believe that we need more government regulation in this arena," he said.

Other lawmakers say the concept merits consideration.

"I certainly think we should hear Senator Warner out and debate the issue and look at the facts," said Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Ill. "If it will save lives and if it will reduce the amount of gasoline and diesel fuel that is used on the roads, then it is something that we certainly ought to take a look at."

Warner, who was the Navy secretary during the early 1970s, said that the 55-mph national speed limit was the ``centerpiece'' of America's efforts to ``work its way through'' the '70s energy crisis. Subsequent studies showed that the law lessened the nation's highway fuel consumption by 2 percent and saved up to 4,000 lives a year by reducing accidents.

``Given the significant increase in the number of vehicles on America's highway system,'' he said, ``one could assume that the amount of fuel that could be conserved today is far greater.''

Warner has asked the Energy Department to determine the most energy-saving speed — and the potential fuel savings — if a new national limit is imposed. If the study shows that a mandated speed limit will curb demand and fuel costs, Warner told senators, he'll probably introduce legislation and try to build bipartisan support.

In a telephone interview, Warner said ``the thing that got me out of my chair'' on the issue was when he read about a group of charity volunteers who couldn't afford to deliver meals to the needy because of high gasoline prices.

"There are millions and millions of Americans suffering terribly from these high gas prices," he said.

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