Transportation Policy

King of the Highway

Congress may return speed limits to states.

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One of the first lessons of driving is that no one follows the speed limit on highways. If fact, a recent study showed that 96 percent of drivers were breaking the 55 mph limit.

Twenty-two years after they were imposed to deal with the energy crisis, an effort to repeal federal speed limits is cruising through Congress. Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) has sponsored legislation that would return speed limits to the states. "Oklahoma is not Connecticut," he says, arguing that local people know better what speeds are appropriate for their highways.

Officials at the Federal Highway Administration and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration disagree, claiming such a move would add thousands of highway fatalities. Nonsense, says Jim Baxter, president of the National Motorists Association. He points to a preliminary Federal Highway Administration report, which has not yet been released to the public, that finds no link between posted speed limits and actual driving speeds.

Baxter argues that setting speed limits too low may actually cause more accidents. "Drivers who obey the current speed limit are no in synch with the traffic flow and that creates problems."

Most states already have a formula for setting speed limits on roads from city streets to highways. Under this rule, limits are set at whatever speed the 85th percentile of people actually drive. Traffic engineers assume this is a safe speed that minimizes traffic disruptions.

The Nickles bill has been passed out of committee and attached as an amendment to a highway construction bill. No timetable for a vote on it has been set, but the bill appears to have strong popular support. "We've received more call on this issue than on anything else we've done this year," says a Nickles aide.