A Glorious Anniversary: 20 Happy Years of Freedom on the Roads

 

On November 29, 1995, President Clinton grudgingly signed a highway bill repealing the much-hated National Maximum Speed Limit. In 1973, President Nixon signed the NMSL into law in an effort to force people to save gas. This law allowed the federal government to withhold federal highway money from states that didn’t drop their speed limit to 55 mph. Real-world fuel savings were negligible. Safety activists proclaimed that it saved a lot of lives, and would bring out charts showing that the highway fatality rate had dropped since the law was enacted. The starting point for said charts was when the law was enacted, and sure enough, the fatality rate decreased in the years after. Had they shown a chart going back decades, you would have seen that the fatality rate had been declining since the late 1940s.

There was a lot of opposition to the law’s repeal. Auto insurance companies certainly had an interest in seeing as many speeding tickets issued as possible. To listen to professional headache Ralph Nader, one would think the ditches would be running red with blood if the daredevils who populate the various state legislatures were allowed to set the speed limits for their own states’ roads. Since 1995, a whole lot of states have enacted highway speed limits as high as 75 and 80 mph. God Bless Texas, they have a toll road that’s 85 mph. What about those highway fatality rates? Still dropping. As a matter of fact, when states first started raising their speed limits, the highway fatality rates dropped in virtually all states; the states that raised their speed limits saw the HFR drop more quickly than the states that didn’t.

If this article were done properly, I would link to sources. Unfortunately, this anniversary crept up on me and I don’t have time to put in all the documentation. I will give you a link, though, to the website for the National Motorists Association. More than probably anyone else, this group fought and fought against the NMSL. I’ve been a member since 1988, when they were still called Citizens’ Coalition for Rational Traffic Laws.

I do have one anecdote to add.Some time after the repeal was passed, I was watching Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect. They were talking about how awful it was that those yahoos in the western states had raised their speed limits. U.S. Senator Arlen Specter was a guest and agreed that those westerners didn’t know what they were doing, and Pennsylvanians could get killed out there.

That was the night I learned to hate Arlen Specter.

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  1. 6foot2inhighheels Member
    6foot2inhighheels
    @6foot2inhighheels

    Nice essay, Randy!  Interstates were engineered for drivers to drive at crowdsourced speeds, meaning that if you follow the rules of keeping a safe distance between you and other guy, the “safe” speed is self-regulating, and will change with conditions.  Another great example of of how cooperation among strangers can thrive in a free society.

    • #1
  2. thelonious Member
    thelonious
    @thelonious

    Cars being more safe may have something to do with plummeting fatality rates.  I wonder what the accident rate is when speeds are increased.  I did experience the glory of driving in Montana when the speed limit was “reasonable and prudent.”  One can drive safe when going 90 or dangerous when going 30.  I wish cops would ticket drivers for dangerous driving i.e swerving in and out of traffic driving way too fast during a snow storm.

    • #2
  3. Eeyore Member
    Eeyore
    @Eeyore

    Back in the day, Jackie Mason ran for President promising that, if elected, he would change the national speed limit to 54.95.

    • #3
  4. Full Size Tabby Member
    Full Size Tabby
    @FullSizeTabby

    Your anecdote not only explains why hating Arlen Specter is reasonable, it provides a real-world explanation why it is usually a bad idea to apply one standard to the whole country. Someone whose only driving experience is in Pennsylvania and its surrounding states would have no idea what it’s like to drive across southern Utah, or central Montana, or west Texas. To apply the standards of Pennsylvania to those places and expect them to make sense is nuts.

    Since moving from California to western New York fifteen years ago, we have been surprised at how many people we meet who have never been west of Chicago, and have no concept of what the western half of the United States looks like. Some good friends recently came back from their first visit to the West (in this case, southwest Texas and eastern New Mexico) utterly dumbfounded at how vast the spaces are out there.

    So, it makes no sense to expect driving standards that might fit Pennsylvania or Maryland fit Montana or Utah or Texas.

    • #4
  5. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Here is a Jam Handy video on speed which has application to the present discussion:

    https://youtu.be/f8hqm9O4nVo

    Dated, but funny.

    Seawriter

    • #5
  6. Randy Weivoda Moderator
    Randy Weivoda
    @RandyWeivoda

    Full Size Tabby:Your anecdote not only explains why hating Arlen Specter is reasonable, it provides a real-world explanation why it is usually a bad idea to apply one standard to the whole country. Someone whose only driving experience is in Pennsylvania and its surrounding states would have no idea what it’s like to drive across southern Utah, or central Montana, or west Texas. To apply the standards of Pennsylvania to those places and expect them to make sense is nuts.

    Exactly.  Some time before seeing Specter on TV I had read an article where professional truck drivers had once again rated Pennsylvania as having the worst roads in the country.  So I found it especially aggravating that a Pennsylvanian thought he knows better than the people of Montana (and their legislators) what the maximum safe speed is in Montana.

    • #6
  7. Vectorman Inactive
    Vectorman
    @Vectorman

    thelonious:Cars being more safe may have something to do with plummeting fatality rates. I wonder what the accident rate is when speeds are increased. I did experience the glory of driving in Montana when the speed limit was “reasonable and prudent.” One can drive safe when going 90 or dangerous when going 30. I wish cops would ticket drivers for dangerous driving i.e swerving in and out of traffic driving way too fast during a snow storm.

    When the NSML started, most cars used cotton cord bias-ply tires, where 25,ooo mile lifetimes were common. They were dangerous if you had a high speed blowout.  Now we have steel-belted radial tires that last 60,000+ miles and hold together in case of a problem.  Shocks, steering, and handling are also much better.  Crash structure has helped somewhat, but without better tires and high speed handling, the fatality rates would be much higher.

    • #7
  8. BastiatJunior Member
    BastiatJunior
    @BastiatJunior

    Last time I was back east was in 2008.  Upon entering Pennsylvania, you would see a sign saying “Welcome to Pennsylvania.  Speed limit still 55 miles per hour.”

    You could feel the pride of the people who designed that sign.

    • #8
  9. BastiatJunior Member
    BastiatJunior
    @BastiatJunior

    It should be noted the Reagan raised the national speed limit from 55 to 65.  That was probably the most he could do at the time.

    • #9
  10. thelonious Member
    thelonious
    @thelonious

    Btw.  How can you hate Arlen Sperter?  He had all the mannerisms of Richard Nixon with none of the charm.

    • #10
  11. Metalheaddoc Member
    Metalheaddoc
    @Metalheaddoc

    Do you think that repeal could happen in the current day? The Nanny State is running without a speed limit right now and running over popular opinion and the Will of the People.

    • #11
  12. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    Randy Weivoda: U.S. Senator Arlen Specter was a guest and agreed that those westerners didn’t know what they were doing, and Pennsylvanians could get killed out there.

    It’s a Pennsylvania thing.  After the repeal of the 55mph limit, when Casey Sr. was still governor of PA, whenever you crossed into PA from any neighboring state you would be greeted with a massive sign, hanging in big bold letters across all lanes of traffic:

    Pennsylvania is STILL 55 MPH.  Please drive safely.

    One of Tom Ridge’s first acts as governor was to raise PA to 65, matching with every other state bordering PA.

    • #12
  13. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    BastiatJunior:Last time I was back east was in 2008. Upon entering Pennsylvania, you would see a sign saying “Welcome to Pennsylvania. Speed limit still 55 miles per hour.”

    You could feel the pride of the people who designed that sign.

    That is only for certain roads, and you can thank governors Ed Rendell and Casey Jr. for that quite recently.  Under Ridge and his successor it was all 65 (up until about 2004 I think).  Rendell also had the notoriety to allow local corrupt jurisdictions to reimpose 55 zone on the Turnpike in random places, where Ridge had made it an even 65 for all but the most congested sections.  Those speed traps were then heavily challenged in court for years afterwards.

    • #13
  14. Whiskey Sam Inactive
    Whiskey Sam
    @WhiskeySam

    What will really tick you off is knowing Specter grew up in the plains of Kansas and should have known better.

    • #14
  15. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    Years ago, I built a restaurant in Denver; Cherry Creek Mall, to be exact.  I drove from Knoxville to Denver several times.  It took 23 hours of driving.  I thought Denver was pretty far out west.  Our next job was in Reno.  Denver was almost exactly halfway there.  The west is yuge.

    • #15
  16. Nick Stuart Inactive
    Nick Stuart
    @NickStuart

    thelonious:Btw. How can you hate Arlen Sperter? He had all the mannerisms of Richard Nixon with none of the charm.

    Some wonder why many took an instant dislike to Specter, not realizing that it just saved a lot of time.

    • #16
  17. Basil Fawlty Member
    Basil Fawlty
    @BasilFawlty

    “This law allowed the federal government to withhold federal highway money from states that didn’t drop their speed limit to 55 mph.”

    A law?  How quaint.

    • #17
  18. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    Fun story about Spectre [sic].  When I was working at Barnes and Noble, back in 1999, he came out with the obligatory pre-presidential-run book, and came to our store for a book signing and talk (our store was considered the “flagship” store in the Philly region).  We did a fair number of book signings and they were usually small affairs for less notable authors.  Some more notable authors could draw largish crowds though (another store in our district hosted Anne Rice, though, and that was a circus and a half – she herself was snobby and demanding, and her fans were lunatics).

    Specter showed up with a police escort and got precisely… nobody.  No one came by for his book, and this was in the state he represented.  Us staff were forbidden (both by general rules of tact as hosts, and by the manager directly) from bothering him – and both the conservatives and the liberals on the staff were really eager to pepper him with questions, but the pre-visit warning from the manager kept us away.  No one could talk to him unless they were buying a book, and that was just out of the question.  Not even with the employee discount were we willing to go that far.  He was truly loathed by left and right in that region.

    • #18
  19. Al Sparks Thatcher
    Al Sparks
    @AlSparks

    thelonious:Cars being more safe may have something to do with plummeting fatality rates. I wonder what the accident rate is when speeds are increased. I did experience the glory of driving in Montana when the speed limit was “reasonable and prudent.” One can drive safe when going 90 or dangerous when going 30. I wish cops would ticket drivers for dangerous driving i.e swerving in and out of traffic driving way too fast during a snow storm.

    First, speeding is easier to penalize and a pretty good money maker, and that’s why politicians like it.

    What you propose that the cops enforce would be harder and cost more money.  But  in addition, weaving in and out of traffic implies there’s heavy traffic.  A cop observing this would have to, uh, weave in and out of traffic to pursue the violator.  And that would make the whole situation that much more unsafe.

    The same with snow storms.  Pursuing someone during a snow storm could not only make it unsafe for the cop doing the pursuing, but any bystanders that are in the way of the cop.

    I’ve seen other proposals for enforcing other people’s driving pet peeve’s without considering how more dangerous it could end up being.

    • #19
  20. Randy Weivoda Moderator
    Randy Weivoda
    @RandyWeivoda

    Metalheaddoc:Do you think that repeal could happen in the current day? The Nanny State is running without a speed limit right now and running over popular opinion and the Will of the People.

    I think it’s possible.  It’s still federal policy that highway money will be withheld from any state that has a legal drinking age of less than 21 or that doesn’t have mandatory seatbelt laws.  A lot of Americans think that we might be better off with a lower drinking age.  A lot of conservatives and libertarians think that regardless of what the right number is, it should be up to each state to decide rather than the federal government.

    We often think of government as a one-way ratchet moving to the left.  But look at gun laws.  Gun owners have a lot more freedom today than 30 years ago.  It happens one step at a time, one state at a time.  Gaining freedom has always been a long, hard slog.  But it is worth it.

    • #20
  21. Probable Cause Inactive
    Probable Cause
    @ProbableCause

    I remember driving across Nebraska in the 80’s.  We spent a lot of time making sure the speedometer was exactly on 64, and watching for cops.

    God bless Sammy Hagar.

    • #21
  22. Yeah...ok. Inactive
    Yeah...ok.
    @Yeahok

    I think the speeders should hook up with the pro choice people; you have no right to tell me what I can do with my accelerator.

    Pedestrians are just masses of tissue. If you hit em just right the hospital can sell some organs, just like planned parenthood.

    • #22
  23. Rapporteur Coolidge
    Rapporteur
    @Rapporteur

    Any presidential candidate that promises to fire anyone and everyone connected with the conditional allocation of highway funds will get my vote, regardless of his/her other positions.

    Picking up on Probable Cause’s Nebraska anecdote: Nebraska passed a seat belt law in 1985, and the citizens of Nebraska voted to repeal it in 1986 (possibly the proudest vote I ever cast as a Nebraska resident). Then, under pressure of losing federal highway funds, Nebraska reinstated the seat belt law in 1993 — thus rendering the judgment of a few FHWA/NHTSA bureaucrats superior to hundreds of thousands of Nebraskans.

    • #23
  24. Probable Cause Inactive
    Probable Cause
    @ProbableCause

    Yeah, it’s been awhile since my kids were little.  But after a certain number of hours strapped into a car seat on I-80, a toddler will start screaming his little head off.  At which point most otherwise law-abiding parents will unstrap the little guy and let him roam free.

    • #24
  25. wilber forge Inactive
    wilber forge
    @wilberforge

    One does recall those years well and found the bribery by the Federal Government to compell the State’s bend a knee disturbing. Nothing has changed much.

    Happened to be driving a 68 Firebird 400 then and at 55, never got out of third gear on the freeways. Until such time one could open it up and blow all the carbón out and it would run correctly. Never saved on fuel as it got 9 miles per gallon in any event. So sue my for having a carbón footprint –

    • #25
  26. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    I fear that texting will reverse the safety gains. Quite a few drivers are highly distracted these days.

    • #26
  27. Douglas Inactive
    Douglas
    @Douglas

    Rapporteur:Any presidential candidate that promises to fire anyone and everyone connected with the conditional allocation of highway funds will get my vote, regardless of his/her other positions.

    Picking up on Probable Cause’s Nebraska anecdote: Nebraska passed a seat belt law in 1985, and the citizens of Nebraska voted to repeal it in 1986 (possibly the proudest vote I ever cast as a Nebraska resident). Then, under pressure of losing federal highway funds, Nebraska reinstated the seat belt law in 1993 — thus rendering the judgment of a few FHWA/NHTSA bureaucrats superior to hundreds of thousands of Nebraskans.

    A really conservative solution to this is…. no federal highway funds. Fed money should go to maintaining interstates, period, regardless of states and their laws. Everything else should be a state and local problem paid for by state and local funds (presumably gas taxes). I’m tired of federal taxes being used as mafia-style bribes.

    • #27
  28. Rapporteur Coolidge
    Rapporteur
    @Rapporteur

    Douglas:

    A really conservative solution to this is…. no federal highway funds. Fed money should go to maintaining interstates, period, regardless of states and their laws. Everything else should be a state and local problem paid for by state and local funds (presumably gas taxes). I’m tired of federal taxes being used as mafia-style bribes.

    Sign me up.  8^)

    • #28
  29. Metalheaddoc Member
    Metalheaddoc
    @Metalheaddoc

    I wish Dave Carter would weigh in on this topic. The road is his office, after all.

    • #29
  30. JimGoneWild Coolidge
    JimGoneWild
    @JimGoneWild

    The first time I drove through Wyoming it was 55 MPH, 1993 or so, and I maintained 64 MPH. An Audi 5000 blasted by me and not 10 seconds later a cop was pulling me over in my base model Honda Civic. $100 ticket just burned me up.

    • #30
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