There are people out there who actually want to bring back the 55 miles-per-hour speed limit.
And, some of them are ruthless, mendacious and nasty enough to get themselves elected to public office. You know the names.
Last summer, Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton told an audience at the National Press Club in Washington, DC that, “The 55 mile speed limit really does lower gas usage, and wherever it can be required and that people will accept it, we ought to do it.”
In fairness to Senator Clinton, it should be noted that she was speaking out of both sides of her mouth -what political weasels call “plausible deniability.” When you see it in print, what she said can mean anything. Everyone who heard her, however, left with the impression that she is in favor of a return to double nickels.
“I mean, there are things that can be done,” Clinton said. “So maybe the trade off is, you know, most of the country where 55 miles an hour doesn’t seem like a burden, we have that. In the rest of the country, inflate your tires before you head off into the sunset.”
The best known advocate for a return to double nickels is Republican Senator John Warner. Senator Warner was once married to the once beautiful movie star Elizabeth Taylor. She called him “Senator Asshole.”
“There are occasions when I drive over 55 miles an hour,” Warner confessed to his Senate Peers last July; “60 miles an hour, sometimes 65. But I am willing to give up whatever advantage to me to drive at those speeds with the fervent hope that that modest sacrifice on my part will help those people across this land tonight and tomorrow and in the indefinite future dealing with this financial crisis.”
Yeah, that will show those bankers.
Less Well Known Political Hacks
Oklahoma State Senator Andrew Rice, Michigan State Representative Aldo Vagnozzi, Illinois Congressman Jerry Costello, and California Congresswoman Jackie Speier all want to enact national laws that would lower the speed limit.
Speier introduced a bill called, in the poetry of politics, “The Gasoline Savings and Speed Limit Reduction Act” which would establish a national speed limit of 60 miles-per-hour in urban areas.
“Americans need relief from the rising cost of gasoline now,” Speier or whoever writes her press releases said. “There is no need to wait for OPEC or the oil companies to help us out. Every driver can affect change….” (She might have meant “effect” change.) …simply by easing up on their right foot.”
“The measure has already received backing from groups as diverse as The Union of Concerned Scientists and The American Trucking Associations,” Speier brags on her official website.
Former Kansas Governor Bill Graves, President of the trucking group, said “The American Trucking Associations commend Congresswoman Speier for her initiative and leadership in introducing the Gasoline Savings and Speed Limit Reduction Act of 2008. Lowering speeds of all vehicles on our highways will improve safety, conserve fuel and reduce emissions of pollutants and carbon dioxide.”
Speier adds that, “National environmental, safety and consumers groups have expressed interest and are currently reviewing the legislation.”
The Man Behind The Cause
A guy named Tim Castleman of Sacramento, California is the authority behind the drive to revive fifty-five. He is not really an authority. Actually he is just a hobbyist.
His hobby is a “group” called the “Drive 55 Conservation Project.” But he is widely sited in news reports as an authority, possibly because compelling his fellow citizens to obey his speed limit is something Castleman thinks about all the time.
For example, Castleman was quoted in an October 30 article in the New York Times. He “said a driver would save only 10 minutes going 80 m.p.h. instead of 55 m.p.h. on a 30-mile trip in the average car, but would spend $3.20 more for gas.”
Castleman’s pronouncement is one of those wonderfully sweeping statistical statements that contains so many hidden variables that most people will just shrug at it and go, “Uh, okay. I guess.”
Here comes another sweeping statistical pronouncement.
From a biker’s perspective, it takes seven hours and 15 minutes to ride 400 miles on a motorcycle if you go 55 miles-per-hour but it only takes five hours if you go 80. At 80 you will probably burn about $37.20. worth of gasoline. If you go 55 you will probably save $4.55 on gas. So if you go fast instead of slow it will cost you almost as much as a cup of coffee at Starbucks but, on the other hand, you will get there a couple of hours sooner.
Castleman has an answer for that, too. His answer is that fuel economy is almost besides the point. “It’s not just the few dollars that you save in the gas tank,” Castleman has said. “That’s almost the small part. There’s the wear and tear on your car. There are the reduced accidents. The lower insurance rates.”
Holes In The Case For Fifty-Five
For the last 35 years, advocates of the fifty-five mile-per-hour national speed limit have said that double nickels saves gas and lives and that it is something that people can actually do. All the proof for these two assertions seems to come from what scientists call “thought experiments.”
On the other hand, the case against double nickels is observed in the real, actual world. Unfortunately, the people who make the rules for all the rest of us do not live in the real world. For example, you may remember a particular photo opportunity that was constructed for Hillary Clinton this summer.
Senator Clinton was driven to a gas station. The station was filled with waiting reporters. The Senator emerged from the back seat of her car. She was supposed to put gas in the tank. This would prove to all her doubters that she was one of us. But she had no idea how to pump gas. No clue.
She explained that it wasn’t her fault. She did not know how gas gets into a car, she said, because the Secret Service always did it for her. The Secret service had to do it by law. If at any time in the last two decades she had actually put gas in her car she would have broken a very important rule, and of course it is always wrong to break rules, so she had remained rule-abiding and ignorant of something everybody knows.
Similarly, many law makers seem to have only a theoretical comprehension of the concepts of “driving” and “traffic.” This may be Senator Warner’s problem. He may have never actually seen traffic because he is always in the back seat.
There lies the flaw in the crusade for lowering the speed limit.
Most automobiles, but not all motorcycles, consume significantly less fuel when driven at a steady 55 miles-per-hour rather than at a consistent 80. But, because of some laws in physics that pertain to momentum and inertia all vehicles burn less gas when they are moving at one speed on a flat, windless surface whether that speed is 55 or 80.
The real enemies of fuel efficiency are starting, stopping, hills and wind. Even if United States Senators do not know this you do.
A study by the Department of Energy determined that a 31 percent reduction in speed from 80 miles-per-hour to 55 would reduce highway fuel consumption by 33 percent. The same study found that similar laws would reduce fuel consumption in city traffic by only 5 percent.
Most people drive most of their miles going to work or running errands. For most Americans those miles are driven in stop and go city traffic where the speed limit is irrelevant.
Compelling people to drive at 55 miles-per-hour does not save lives. In the ten year period from 1995 until 2005 highway fatalities fell by 17 percent, injuries by 33 percent and accidents by 39 percent.
Those years are particularly significant because it was during that span that distracting in-car electronic devices like cell phones and Blackberries and talking GPS devices like Tom-Tom were compelling drivers to ignore the road. Nevertheless, the rate of injuries per mile travelled in 2005 was the lowest of any year since the Interstate Highway System was built during the Eisenhower administration.
Numerous scientifically reliable studies have proven that two factors cause most freeway and interstate traffic accidents: Roads that are inadequate for the volume of traffic they carry and drivers who insist on driving either much faster or much slower than the vehicles surrounding them. In other words, it doesn’t much matter what the speed limit is as long as drivers have enough space around them to escape danger and as long as everyone agrees on what that “real speed limit” is.
Which raises the most compelling argument against lowering the speed limit.
Can’t Drive Fifty-Five
It is impossible to drive 55 on a freeway.
People will drive 55 miles-per-hour and less on city streets but nobody drives that slowly on any limited access highway. Three years ago, a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle named Michael Cabanatuan tried to drive 55 just to see what would happen. He reported his experiences in an article that ran under the headline, “Drive 55, save gas-get flipped off.”
“The drawbacks aren’t measured just in terms of minutes lost,” Cabanatuan reported. “There’s the feeling of inadequacy that comes from being flipped off by a 12-year-old boy in another car. From being tailgated by little old ladies and pickup trucks piled high with furniture. From being passed by 830 vehicles, including an AC Transit bus, on a drive from the Bay Area to deep into the San Joaquin Valley.”
“Is that all?” a California Highway Patrol officer named Mike Panelli asked the Chronicle reporter when he heard about the 830 vehicles. “It must have been a slow-traffic day.”
The cop and the reporter live in the real world. The politicians and the crusaders do not.