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House Votes to Repeal 55-M.P.H. Speed Limit : Roads: Bill gives states authority to set standards. Californians are expected to see more 65-m.p.h. signs.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The House voted Wednesday to repeal the national speed limit of 55 m.p.h. on most highways and give back to the states the authority to set their own standards--a move that California officials said would mean greater use of the 65-m.p.h. limit in the state.

House supporters of the measure argued that states are more familiar with their own roads than Washington and should be given the leeway to determine what speeds are safe.

“The people in Texas know better than the federal government about our roads,” said Rep. Pete Geren (D-Tex.).

The provision was part of a larger highway bill, approved 419 to 7, that would also require states to impose tougher rules on alcohol consumption by drivers under age 21. The overwhelming margin of approval did not reflect the level of opposition to the speed limit provision.

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Earlier in the day, the House voted, 313 to 112, to reject an amendment that would have retained the national speed limit, which was first set at 55 m.p.h. in 1973 and later modified to allow 65-m.p.h. traffic on rural stretches of interstate and divided highways.

The House also rejected a watered-down version of the amendment that would have set a maximum limit of 65 m.p.h. on all roads.

Lawmakers who favored keeping the federal limits warned that giving states the opportunity to raise speed limits could cause thousands of additional highway deaths each year.

“It should be obvious that the death toll will rise once the states begin increasing the speed limits under the provisions of the bill,” said Rep. Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.), who sponsored the amendments. “This is not a matter of states’ rights, it’s a matter of human rights.”

The Senate voted in June to strike the national maximum speed limits for cars and light trucks, but voted to retain them for large trucks and buses.

The differences between the House and Senate measures will be worked out when representatives from the two bodies meet as early as next week in conference committee to reconcile their differing versions of the legislation.

In California, the Legislature gave unanimous approval last week to increase the maximum speed limit to 65 m.p.h. on selected highways in the state.

“The governor welcomes the opportunity for the state to determine its speed limit as it sees fit,” said John Varna, spokesman for the California Business, Transportation and Housing Agency.

Lt. Stan Perez of the California Highway Patrol said the CHP and the state Department of Transportation will conduct safety and engineering studies to determine which freeways and divided four-lane roads would be suitable for the 65-m.p.h. limit.

Currently, motorists traveling federal interstate highways and state four-lane roadways in rural areas of California can legally drive at 65 m.p.h., but the limit is reduced to 55 m.p.h. in more populated areas.

Perez said that the engineering and safety surveys for roads proposed for the higher speed limit typically involve accident rates, geography and average speeds of traffic.

Six other states--Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas, South Dakota, Wyoming and Missouri--already have laws on the books that would increase speeds as soon as the national limit is lifted.

Those arguing against lifting the federal limits included Transportation Secretary Federico Pena, who cited research showing that 5,000 lives would be lost each year if the legislation becomes law.

Pena suggested that failure to keep the federal ceiling “might jeopardize” the legislation, a veiled threat that President Clinton might veto it. “We should not retreat when 40,000 people are killed on our highways every year,” Pena said.

Congress established a federal speed limit of 55 m.p.h. in 1973 to save energy during the Arab oil embargo, but the rationale was broadened when research showed that lower speed limits decreased fatalities in traffic accidents.

In 1987, Congress amended the law to allow states to increase the maximum limit to 65 m.p.h. on rural sections of interstates and in 1991 to allow 65-m.p.h. speed limits on four-lane divided state highways in rural areas.

In another bow to states, the measure would strike down a federal law that directs states to have laws requiring motorcycle riders to wear helmets.

The House ignored the state empowerment issue, however, in adopting the amendment to require states to set stricter alcohol consumption rules for drivers under the age of 21.

Under the legislation, young drivers would be allowed a blood-alcohol level of just one-fourth of the amount states allow adults before they are considered to be driving under the influence. States would risk 5% of their federal highway funds if they failed to carry out such laws by 1999.

Pena said that the so-called zero-tolerance measure would “send a strong message to youth of this country that drinking and driving will not be tolerated.” The Senate transportation bill contains a similar provision.

The highway bill approved Thursday also places 159,000 miles of roads into a new National Highway System, a designation that will streamline funding decisions. Roads within the new system will have priority over all others for receiving federal money.

“The National Highway System will be to the 21st Century what the interstate system was in the 20th Century--the backbone of our nation’s transportation system,” said Rep. Bud Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

Rep. Norman Y. Mineta (D-San Jose), the ranking minority member on the committee, said that the new system is important to California because it sets priorities for continued federal funding of the state’s highways.

The system includes the 45,000-mile interstate system and a variety of other major roads. While they account for only 4% of the nation’s total highway mileage, these roads carry 40% of all highway traffic and 75% of the nation’s trucking.

Times staff writer Carl Ingram contributed to this story from Sacramento.


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