Monday, June 27, 2005

The False 55

Good morning folks. Today we have a special treat. American Iron has given us permission to publish his great piece discussing the truth behind the 55 mph speed limit. Enjoy!

"Those unwilling to learn from the stupidity of those in the past are doomed to be equally stupid or worse in the present and future."

-- American Iron

For the second time in my life I'm reading articles about how being able to drive 70 mph or higher is the root of all evil in America. Once again the hue and cry is going up from the big-government social engineer-activists that we're killing our children and the earth by driving too fast. Now, for the second time in my life I get the fun of refuting this stupidity with the hard facts these activists refuse to acknowledge.

The 55 mph national speed limit (NSL) was instituted by the Nixon administration as a feel-good program substituting as a real energy policy. Like his proposal to turn off Christmas lights, Nixon's NSL made everyone feel like they were helping America when in fact they were not helping America, but hurting it. (As a side point, note that Las Vegas and Times Square use more electricity in one night than all of the Christmas lights in America do in a day.)

Back in '84 I did a short paper in college that debunked the pro-55 argument raging at that time, which I then had to read to my classmates. Even my ultra-lefty classmates were stunned that I could prove slowing down was a bad idea. I reminded them that turning off Christmas lights was not only a poor way to run foreign policy (a swipe at the Carter administration), it was also no way to handle the energy issue (a swipe at the Nixon administration).

I'm posting that paper below to once again bring reality to the speed limit argument. Note that the dollar figures are in 1984 money for the population of that country at that time, so now those figures would be at least twice as high today.

Fixing America's energy policy will take unpopular drilling, very unpopular nuclear power, and very very unpopular discipline. Slowing down traffic is no way to rapidly move forward to a sound energy policy.


American Iron


The False 55

Many articles have been written supporting the 55 mile per hour speed limit; a classic example would be U.S. News and World Report's January 6, 1975 article: "Why Auto Deaths Plummeted in '74". This article uses the same arguments as all of the other pro-55 articles I have read; it also has the same inherent fallacies and statistical manipulations. It is not only easy to show the faults in pro-55 arguments, but also that the 55 mph speed limit is an expensive and ineffective substitute for a real safety/energy policy.

U.S. News states: "The speed at which most drivers travel is considered so basic to future traffic death rates that the National Safety Council petitioned Congress to retain its present incentives for 55 mph speed limits indefinitely". It supports this action with statistics connecting the 55 mph limit to a 20 percent decrease in traffic deaths from 1973 to 1974. These are: a savings of 11,000 lives, and a drop in deaths per 100 million vehicle miles from 4.3 to 3.5. U.S. News quotes experts as saying this percentage drop is "unbelievable".

U.S. News gives other statistical credits to the National Speed Limit (NSL). One is the "halo effect": the reduction of all road speeds traveled from a reduction of freeway speeds. Another is that with only 20 percent of drivers obeying the NSL, traffic still flows smoothly at reduced speeds.

First, let's reveal the weakness' of the first major statistic given in defense of the NSL: the decrease in deaths per 100 million miles driven in '73-'74. Kevin Smith from Motor Trend Magazine indicates that not only has the death rate dropped in 1974, but: "It also dropped after General Motors introduced the X-cars (1980), during the heights of the horsepower race (late '60s), when Alaska joined the Union (1959), and when my family moved to Berkeley (1954)...the death rate has been falling steadily since the numbers were first compiled in the 1920's" (Motor Trend, p.90, November, 1984). His views are supported by statistics from the National Safety Council.

If you compared a graph of the NSC data for the deaths per million to that used in the U.S. News article, you'd see that while the U.S. News chart shows what appears to be a huge, plunging dive in the death rate, the NSC chart shows a moderate dip in a constantly downward graph. Simply put, the U.S. News article is a deliberate distortion of the facts by taking one part of a long downward trend out of context. When viewed along with all of the other annual statistics, the 1974 drop is not nearly as impressive as U.S News would have us believe. It also contradicts the pro NSL argument people barrage me with; since fewer, if any, drivers are still doing 55 (on a national scale), the death rate must be constantly going up instead of down.

Further perspective can be added to the distortion of data being presented by pro-NSL activists by looking at the types of miles driven which make up the charts created by U.S. News and the NSC. Consumer's Research Magazine reveals that: "Only about one-third of the total vehicle mileage traveled in this country is on roads where 55 mph is possible, and only half of that mileage is actually driven at or above the limit (55)" (Consumer's Research Magazine, p. 18-20, August, 1980). Simply put, most traffic fatalities occur on roads where the NSL is not even an issue. With 50%, compared to U.S. News' 20%, of all highway miles being driven at 55 or less (which should prove the pro-55 camp correct with a lower death rate), the NSC graph of the death rate actually rises from 1977 to 1980. Apparently, speed is not the critical factor in reducing deaths as U.S. News would have us believe.

A historical perspective is perhaps the most enlightening. The majority of the '73 - '74 drop in the NSC death rate happens _before_ the 55 mph limit was imposed; this was due to the lack of gasoline from poor government distribution, and the Arab oil embargo (Motor Trend,p.89, November, 1984). The NSL, therefore, had little to no effect on safety.

One might be tempted to conclude at this point that the NSL is at least saving America money in fuel costs. I agree, we are saving one percent of our fuel bill, and losing a fortune elsewhere in the form of time, cost of goods, under inflated tires, and poorly tuned engines. These major losses make our gas savings from driving slower look small. This is something that pro-NSLers never mention, and we shall see why.

Perhaps the greatest cost of the NSL is in time. Most people are willing to spend 42 percent of an hour's wage to save an hour of travel time (Newsweek, p.37, October 23, 1978). If we multiplied this amount by the number of hours lost per year due to the NSL, we would have 6 billion dollars worth of wasted productivity time (Car and Driver, p.9, May, 1983). This is the same calculation used by BART, and METRO transit companies for predicting the savings on improvements to their systems (Newsweek, p.37, October 23, 1978).

Lives and gasoline saved are also directly relatable to cost. It costs about 102 man-years of added travel time in the U.S. alone to save one life by traveling at 55 mph (Car and Driver, p.9, May, 1983). If all of the tires on U.S. vehicles were properly inflated at all times, we could save as much gasoline as with the NSL, doing 65-70 mph, and not lose the 6 billion dollars in wasted time (Car and Driver, p.9, May, 1983). If lives are saved by doing 55, they cost 1.3 million dollars each (6 billion dollars in wasted time, divided by 4500 National Highway Administration lives = 1.3 million dollars). By putting smoke detectors in every home we could save as many lives for only $50-80,000 per life (Newsweek, p.37, October 23, 1978). By using safer roadside obstacles such as break-away light poles and road signs, we could save lives for a mere $20-100,000 each. We could also save 4500 lives a year with kidney dialysis machines for $30,000 each or with cardiac care units for a scant $2000 each. With all of this in mind, the NSL is a relatively ineffective and costly method of saving lives compared to other more practical methods.

There are even more costs to going slower. It will cost $646 million in federal tax money from '79-'89 for enforcement of the NSL; fewer tickets were issued for drivers exceeding 75 than are now given for over 55 (Business Week, p.36-37, March 28, 1983). It will also take other funds in the billions of dollars for local and state enforcement to actually man the radar equipment, and do the paperwork to enforce the NSL (Consumer's Research, p.19, August, 1980). By eliminating the NSL, America would give officers more time to fight serious crime instead of chase frustrated drivers.

Since people hate paying for something when there is no practical reason to do so (as with the NSL), one would assume that there would be great unrest over the NSL. There is. In 1983, Colorado and California tried to pass a bill that would repeal the NSL in their states (Business Week, p.36-37, March 28, 1983). Kentucky has already passed a bill that would automatically drop the NSL if the federal government does so (Business Week, p.36-37, March 28, 1983). In Nevada, a $5 fine is given to motorists traveling between 55 and 70 mph for "energy wasting" instead of higher fines like other states (Business Week, p.37, March 28 1983). This movement is continuing in 1984, but the legislative results remain to be seen.

It is good to see that people are waking up to the fact that the NSL is an expensive and ineffective way to save lives and energy. What America really needs is better driver education, coupled with required safety belt use along with an energy policy that does not require hindering the present form of popular transit, instead of finding a more efficient one (Car and Driver, p.9, May, 1983). Perhaps enough time has passed since the energy crunch for our politicians to get rid of the "false 55", and actually do something constructive to save more lives and energy than the program(s) will cost.


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