The 55 mile-per-hour speed limit is apparently becoming a settled aspect of American life. All the politicians are for it. And since politicians write the laws, prospects are glum for any easing of speed restrictions. This may not seem to matter to anyone who is not a driving enthusiast, but for the millions who do like to drive, much of the fun has been lost. Hitting the open road at such dawdling speeds practically turns the clock back to the time before the invention of the V-8 engine.
For all its wide acceptance, however, the theory of speed limits is by no means compelling. It supposes that a remote authority has a better grasp of the particulars which bear upon determination of safe driving speed than does the actual driver. Of course, the driver knows the weather, time of day, incidence of traffic, and the design of his own vehicle. The authority does not. The driver knows about his own driving skills. The authority does not. Nor does the authority know whether the driver's tires are new or old, whether his car is well-maintained, or how fast it will stop. In spite of all this, it is generally accepted in this country that the authority is in a better position to know at what speed a vehicle may be operated than is the person sitting behind the wheel.
Speed limits were questionable enough when maximum rates varied from 65 to 90 mph. Now even these last concessions to the driver's intelligence have been abandoned. The speed limit is 55 everywhere. Never mind that America is a land of more than three and a half million square miles with geography and driving conditions as varied as any on earth. There are thousands of miles of road through open, empty prairie where you could drive 100 miles an hour, fall asleep at the wheel, and still come out safely unless you had the bad fortune to run into a billboard. But that doesn't matter. The authorities have decreed the maximum safe speed to be 55.
The result of all the creeping along is supposed to be an energy savings. And perhaps it is. But why save a few dribbles of energy, especially when it can cost you more to go 55 than it would to travel at 70, the speed at which most modern motor vehicles were designed to cruise? Consider this. If you saved two dollars on gas by driving at 55 instead of 70 on a 250-mile trip, the only way you could come out ahead is if you calculate that your time is worth less than the minimum wage. Note that it would be illegal to hire anyone else to drive your car and value his time so lowly. If, as is probable, your time is worth more than the minimum wage, your losses from the speed limit are even greater.
But suppose that your time is absolutely worthless. Suppose that you dispute the old aphorism that time is money. Imagine that you don't care how much time you waste driving on the highway. The speed limit still costs you money. It costs you even if you don't drive, because lower speed limits place higher transportation costs on about 80 percent of everything you buy. That is the portion of commerce carried by truck, and truck drivers are well paid. For every delivery made at 55 which could have been made at 70, you and other consumers pay an "inefficiency surcharge" of higher wages because it took the driver 21 percent longer than necessary to reach his destination.
West Germany, which has suffered less economic damage from higher oil prices than we have, has recognized the greater efficiency of higher speed limits by having none at all. German drivers on the open road may travel as fast as their best judgment permits. They need no better consideration to drive safely than the desire to keep their bodies intact. And they do about as well as we do, haunted as we are by our highway patrols and state police with speed traps and new-fangled radar guns.
The West Germans have not only been spared the indignity of speed limits. They have been spared the greater indignity of being subjected to political mindwarp stipulating that it is patriotic duty to poke along the highway. Here, the Germans have been spared by geology. They have no domestic petroleum production. So no politician has been willing to make himself absurd by pretending that driving more slowly would end dependence upon foreign crude. The Germans are dependent and they know it. But so what? They are dependent upon foreign suppliers for oranges and bananas also, yet no one has proposed that it is a patriotic duty to eat less fruit salad. In either case, foreign supplies can readily be obtained through peaceful trade.
If the Germans, without oil of their own, can find logic to drive 100 m.p.h. on the autobahn, why must Americans be reduced to poking along? Domestic American petroleum production has been 22 quadrillion BTU's annually. This considered, what makes our situation so much more desperate than Germany's? Why indeed, should we respond to a supposed shortage of oil by proposing to reduce foreign purchases and exhausting our own supplies first? That's like having a person who expects famine prepare for it by refusing to purchase additional food supplies, and deciding instead to deplete his own cupboard. How can such illogic be explained?
The answer is that our lowered speed limits and other projects to create "energy independence" are not really designed to save energy so much as they are to obscure the effects of inflation. The so-called "energy crisis" (at least in its current dimensions) does not arise from a lack of oil, of which there is plenty, but from a glut of paper money. The Germans, with the world's largest monetary reserves and strongest economy, can buy all the oil they want. Their money is good.
If our government kept the dollar sound, we'd have no problem either. But it hasn't and we do. The oil producers have lost money in the past because of our inflation and they don't want to be caught again. That is why OPEC stopped calculating prices in dollars. And that is why, sooner or later, the oil producers may no longer be willing to accept depreciating paper money in exchange for good petroleum.
When that happens, our government will be faced with two choices: either stop inflation or stop importing foreign oil. If our dependency upon foreign oil is great, the American people would never tolerate a vast drop in living standards merely to enable politicians to continue inflation. So inflation would be stopped and the oil would continue to flow. On the other hand, if foreign oil dependency were minor, the politicians could continue the inflation without regard to the consequences. Thus, the cynical speed limit laws designed to force you to reduce gasoline consumption, and thereby help neutralize pressures to stop inflation. They want you to drive your sports car like a Pinto so they can continue to print irredeemable paper money.
So the next time you have an opportunity to speed and get away with it, remember that inflation is all you conserve by foregoing the pleasures of driving.
(Every second month, Experience will cover aspects of American culture and lifestyles, as seen by James Dale Davidson. Since founding the National Taxpayers Union in 1969, Davidson has supplemented his political activities with writings on American folkways, for publications ranging from the Washington Post to Playboy magazine.)
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Experience: Nowhere Fast".