Sometime earlier this year, probably in April or May, the 3 millionth American since 1904 died in a wreck on a U.S. road. The toll is four times greater than all American combat deaths in 10 wars dating back to the Revolutionary War in 1775.
Although no one disputes that speed contributes to one in three highway fatalities, Congress’ decision to end the “double nickel"--the federally imposed 55-mph speed limit--has forced safety experts to reexamine the culture of speed and ask why U.S. roads take more lives than the roads of any other nation.
Mark Meadows, who has been patrolling one of America’s most notorious death traps for 11 years, thinks he knows the answer.
“There’s nothing wrong with this ol’ highway,” he says of U.S. Highway 71. “It’s the idiots driving it. You take a good straight stretch, and you still get people killed the way they drive. They’ll pass on curves, go at unsafe speeds. You stop them and say, ‘Don’t you think that’s dangerous?’ and they’re surprised at what you’re saying. It’s amazing.” U.S. 71 reaches from Shreveport, La., to International Falls, Minn., straight and wide and modern most of the way, but here in the Ozarks of western Arkansas, it is a two- and three-lane twisting relic of the 1930s, snaking over Mt. Gaylor and around Parrish Curve and by Artists Point, filled with trucks barreling to Dallas and Kansas City and Joplin, Mo., never designed to handle the 11,000 vehicles a day it carries now. Twenty-three people have been killed on the 42 miles between Fayetteville and Alma, Ark., since 1992.
Meadows, an Arkansas state trooper, cruises south at 55 mph past West Fork and Mountainburg, pointing out the landmarks of his trade. “At the bridge we’re fixing to come up to, I worked a double fatality. They burned to death. . . . Over there an 18-wheeler wiped out an RV. That was a fatal too.”
The CB chatter from passing truckers bleeds into his scanner: “You’re coming up on Smokey, around the bend.” . . . “Smokey southbound, just pulling off onto the shoulder.” It’s cat and mouse toying for control of the double nickel.
The trooper’s fingers dance over the control board of his radar that locks in the speed of vehicles both ahead and behind. He wears a bulletproof vest and a .40-caliber service revolver, has a .25-caliber pistol in the door pocket, a Ruger mini 14 semiautomatic rifle on the floor and a 12-gauge shotgun in the trunk. On his dash near the odometer is a picture of his wife and daughter, and in the visor, a University of Arkansas basketball schedule.
Bingo! Meadows’ radar blinks 65. He cuts a U-turn, his white Chevrolet with a Corvette engine seemingly airborne, and a northbound 80,000-pound tractor-trailer hisses to a stop, Meadows on its tail. He writes the bearded Texas driver a ticket and back in his cruiser says: “Every time I stop someone I feel like I’m deterring an accident. That’s why it doesn’t bother me one iota to write a ticket. You ask me, 55’s plenty fast on this road and too fast when it’s wet. I’d hate to see the limit go any higher.”
Last month 46 consumer, safety and insurance groups lobbied Congress to maintain the federal maximum speed limit at 55 mph (and 65 mph on some rural interstates). The U.S. Transportation Department said repeal would claim an additional 6,434 lives the first year at a national cost of $19 billion. “We cannot afford to take this step backward,” said Transportation Secretary Federico Pena.
But the repeal, tacked onto a highway funding bill, sailed through the House without opposition and passed the Senate, 80 to 16, a symbol of the states’ rights issue as much as of the national desire to drive faster. President Clinton, whose father, Bill Blythe, was killed in a single-car accident in Missouri in 1946, signed the legislation with reluctance, thus returning to the states, as of last Friday, the right to set their own speed limits.
Nevada, Kansas and Wyoming immediately raised the limit on their interstates to 75, Oklahoma and South Dakota to 70. Starting Sunday, 2,800 miles of freeway in California will be posted at 65 mph and an additional 1,400 miles are candidates for 70 mph, beginning in January. Missouri and Texas will soon adopt 70-mph limits too.
Most states--including Arkansas, which started Operation Safe Speed last March to reduce speeding and which, along with Nevada, has the highest rate of deaths per miles driven in the nation--have not yet made a decision. Montana dropped its daytime limit entirely, requiring only that a motorist’s speed be “reasonable and proper.”
“There’s still a kind of leave-me-alone frontier attitude here--a thumbing of the nose, so to speak, at federal regulations,” said Wes Cloc, president of Montana’s Automobile Assn. of America. “Believe me, I’m pro-safety, but am I in favor of raising the limit? Yes, where it’s prudent to do so. Should there be no speed limit? Absolutely not.”
Even at the lower federal speed limit, vehicular crashes are the leading cause of death and injury for all Americans between the ages of 5 and 35, the American Insurance Assn. says. One study puts the cost of speed-related crashes at $24 billion a year and research by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows that the odds of a driver surviving an accident at 60 mph are 30 to 1; at 70 mph, there’s an even chance of survival.
“We absolutely know that as speed goes up, fatalities go up,” said Alan McMillan, vice president of the National Safety Council. “That’s the law of physics and that law doesn’t change just because we’re making safer cars and building better highways.
“Now, with all we know, we’re raising the limit and, without any dispute, deaths will go up. The additional deaths each year will be the equivalent of a jumbo jet crashing every month and we wouldn’t tolerate that as a nation for a minute. But we’ve become numb to the issue of highway death because it is part of our culture.”
The number of U.S. highway deaths peaked at 56,278 in 1972. The next year, in response to an energy crisis and the need to conserve fuel, Congress took from the states the right to set speed limits and established a maximum national speed of 55 mph on 40,000 miles of interstates and half a million miles of state highways.
“I for one am sick and tired of those Yankee senators and those Yankee representatives telling me what to do,” Texas Rep. John Hoestenbach said at the time, echoing a sentiment heard in the open spaces of the West and Southwest.
But the year the new law went into effect, 1974, highway fatalities dropped to 45,196, the largest one-year decrease ever recorded. Americans also saved 3.4 billion gallons of fuel in 1974 by driving slower. The number of deaths per 100 million miles traveled continued to drop and in 1992 reached the lowest rate ever: 1.8.
Decreased speed, safety experts agree, is but one of several factors responsible for lowering the death rate. Seat belts (required in every state except Maine and New Hampshire), motorcycle helmets, air bags and better-engineered cars had a huge impact. So did raising the minimum drinking age to 21, changes in the nation’s use of alcohol and tougher penalties for drunk driving. Also the recessions that accompanied the energy crises altered driving behavior and kept at home some accident-prone drivers.
Some safety consultants, though, are not convinced that a higher speed limit on well-designed roads will in itself result in more deaths. Raising the limit from, say, 55 to 65 encourages slower drivers--among the most dangerous because their driving habits lead to rear-enders--to go at 65, comfortable they will not get a ticket. But it doesn’t necessarily make those already going 70 drive faster because they are at a speed at which they feel in control, consultants say.
“When you get paid by the mile like me, the idea of raising the limit is fantastic,” said trucker Lucion Stidham, taking on 100 gallons of diesel in Fayetteville for the run to Little Rock and Kansas City. “See, if 65 is legal, I can do 650 miles a day. At 55, I do 550. That’s a hundred miles difference and multiply that by 365 to see what it means to my paycheck over a year.
“I remember the days when we could drive 70. I’m not saying that’s real safe--an 80,000-pound rig is a loaded gun--but where are you going to draw the line? Some people can’t drive safe at 50. You got to have a limit that makes sense.”
The attempt to find a balance between speed and safety goes back to the days of the horse and buggy. In 1487, Paris banned trotting and galloping on city streets and punished offenders with a flogging. New York in 1652 forbade wagons to be driven at a gallop within the city and in 1678, Newport, R.I., decreed by ordinance that no one could operate “any conveyance” in a hazardous and reckless manner. An 8-mph speed limit for bicyclists was set in New York in 1899 and enforced by a bike patrol of 100 policemen.
Connecticut, in 1901, became the first state to establish speed limits for automobiles: 15 mph on rural roads, 12 mph in the cities.
Other states followed suit but 3,100 Americans were still killed on the nation’s primitive roads in 1913, even though only 1 million vehicles were registered in the U.S. then.
By 1918, the speed limit had crept upward, ranging from 15 mph in South Carolina to 40 in Kansas.
With the exception of World War II, when the nation’s maximum speed was set at 40 mph to conserve fuel and rubber, the federal government stayed out of the speed-limit business until 1973.
The 55-mph National Maximum Speed Limit Law was amended in 1987 to allow states to set 65 as the limit on rural interstates, and further amended in 1991 to permit 65 on certain rural state freeways that had the design features of an interstate.
Back on U.S. 71, a red BMW whistled by at 66 mph in a 45-mph zone and Mark Meadows, the Arkansas trooper, flagged the driver down.
“You can’t do 45 here or the trucks’ll run right over you,” the driver said.
Meadows wrote her a ticket and headed south again, climbing on a serpentine road whose pavement still bore the skid marks of earlier fatal accidents.
Among the roadside oaks and cedars two signs warned of the dangers ahead.
One said, “Very Crooked and Steep Next 17 Miles,” and the other, “6 People Killed last 3 Yrs. Don’t Be Next.”
The families of some of 71’s victims had set wreaths at the crash sites, but the wreaths had been cut up and disappeared when the county mower came through to cut the long roadside grass on its last run of autumn.
“If they put up white crosses for each fatal we’ve had on 71,” Meadows said, “this highway’d be littered.”
Researcher Edith Stanley contributed to this story.