Slow down, Congress

Excuse us if we chortle at federal legislation that aims to lower highway speed limits. Here in Southern California, we’re still trying to figure out how to get above 30 mph on the freeways most mornings.

After speed limits were capped nationwide at 55 mph in 1974 in an attempt to reduce gasoline consumption, it took more than two decades to repeal the federal law and legally feel the wind in our hair again. “Legally,” because most drivers had ignored the speed limit whenever they could.

Another decade, another gas crisis -- and, of course, another attempt to put the brakes on our driving fun. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) has introduced legislation to lower the maximum speed on urban highways from 65 mph to 60 and on rural highways from 70 mph to 65. Not quite as bad as the old 55, but we wish Speier, who was recently elected to Congress, hadn’t chosen this as her first attempt at federal lawmaking. It hasn’t been thought through, and it should be stopped in its nascent tracks.

If drivers actually reduced their speed by 5 mph, a big “if” indeed, they would use about 7% less gas, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, depending on the vehicle and driving conditions -- but only when on the highway. Overall, the lower speed limits are projected to reduce gas use by about 2%, although there is hot debate about whether the “Drive 55" campaign ever saved that much.


Speier’s bill would employ 1970s tactics to solve our 21st century problem. We have more effective tools now, such as technology to drastically improve fuel economy and to telecommute for some jobs. Even a 3 miles-per-gallon improvement in the fuel economy of the nation’s car and SUV fleets would reduce gasoline use by more than 10%, for all drivers, on highways or surface streets.

But the very best way to save on gas is to avoid driving altogether. Speier could make more effective inroads on energy costs by providing incentives for companies and government agencies to cut back on employees’ commutes. Where possible, they could allow telecommuting, even if only one day a week. Or they could allow employees to work slightly longer days in exchange for an occasional day off.

Consider the case of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, a San Diego manufacturer of unmanned aircraft systems. Two weeks ago, the company allowed its 3,200 employees to vote on whether they would prefer to put in an extra hour for eight work days, plus a regular eight-hour day, and get the 10th day off. The new system goes into effect Aug. 25.

Supporters of a lower speed limit say oil prices aren’t the only reason to ease up on the gas pedal, that slower highway traffic would mean fewer and less-serious collisions. But contrary to conventional wisdom, the research on this is mixed, with much of the data indicating that higher speed limits either don’t affect safety in most cases or actually improve it.

Perhaps the most relevant data are the accident figures for California after the cap on speed limits was repealed at the end of 1995 and speed limits in most areas were raised to 65 mph. The number of fatalities dropped each year for three years after. So did the number of fatalities per 100 million miles driven. Injuries dropped for two years, before an uptick the third year that still didn’t come close to the 1995 figure. According to the California Highway Patrol, the number of fatalities in which unsafe speed was the primary cause has dropped 10.4%.

One of the most comprehensive studies, by researchers at the University of Tennessee, examined 15 years of records in all 50 states. It concluded that raising speed limits to 65 mph increased fatality rates for rural interstate highways but reduced them for all other kinds of highways. Perhaps the most recent study was released last month by Purdue University, where researchers found that a 2005 increase from 65 mph to 70 mph on an Indiana interstate had not increased the chance of injuries or fatalities.

In many cases, it appears that drivers were traveling at these faster speeds even before the speed limits were raised. In California, average highway speeds increased by a mere 1 mph after 1995. As for why some death and injury rates would decrease, traffic experts can only conjecture. Some attribute it to the fatigue and boredom that sets in on long-distance drives that take more time at slower speeds. Others, such as the Michigan State Police, suggest that accidents are less likely when most motorists drive a uniform speed. Under the 55 mph limit, a small minority of motorists obeyed, while others drove much faster.

We didn’t know all this when the Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act was passed a quarter of a century ago, threatening states with the loss of federal highway dollars if they failed to slow us all down. Rather than bringing back the old clunker, Congress should be looking at fresh ways to reduce our reliance on oil. Sometimes the good old days weren’t so great.