Tuesday, July 21, 2009

What Happened to 55?

Buried in the "Science" section of today's Times is a squib reporting a new study in the current American Journal of Public Health. The study looked at highway deaths since the repeal of the national 55mph speed limit and concluded that the "failed policy of increased speed limits" accounted for an estimated 12,500 unnecessary deaths over a ten-year period. This despite all the safetly improvements that have been made in cars which should have brought the death rate down. (No word, at least in this summary, on how many non-fatal injuries could be attributed to increased speed).

When Congress imposed 55mph on the nation in 1974, car crashes weren't its primary concern. Rather, Congress wanted us all to drive more slowly as a way of burning gasoline more efficiently. During that first energy crisis, with an OPEC oil embargo, rising gas prices etc, this seemed like an easy and sensible way to help ease our dependence on imported oil.

Repealing that speed limit, which began in 1987 and was complete by 1995, was a pure piece of Reaganite political symbolism. After all, Americans have a constitutional right to drive at 65 don't we? and a 55mph speed limit was an onerous regulation imposed by pointed-headed Democrats who wanted to deprive us of our freedom. I think the speed limit in the Soviet Union was 55mph wasn't it?

So, one new energy crisis and 12,500 additional deaths later, why aren't we talking about bringing back the 55mph speed limit? Even President Obama, who has more or less mandated that the American auto industry produce more fuel-efficient cars in the future, hasn't suggested we drive at 55mph to get better mileage in the cars we are already driving.

The reason, I think, is that higher speed limits not only burned more gas and killed more drivers, but it profoundly re-shaped the American landscape. During the decade or between the elimination of 55 and the collapse of the real estate market, exurban sprawl was a major driver of the American economy. Chester county, Pennsylvania, Delaware county, Ohio, Lake county Illinois, all on the far edges of metropolitan areas, grew at astonishing rates during those boom years, as did dozens of other exurban places.

To live out on the exurban frontier doesn't simply require a car - though it obviously does. The distances between home, work, school, shopping, city culture have become so attenuated that life requires a car driven at high speeds. In this sense, 65mph help make exurbia possible.

Conversely, lowering the speed limit back to 55 would increase the time exurbanites spend in their cars by over 15% (roughly), a significant amount given how much time they already spend there. Many Americans, therefore, simply cannot fathom driving any slower, regardless of how much money they might save at the pump, or how many lives they might save.

And herein lies the double-edged nature of more fuel efficient cars: on the one hand, there is no question that we ought to have cars that get better mileage. On the other, this will simply encourage people to drive more, and will provide an impetus to sprawl, which is also environmentally destructive. The answer to this dilemma, obviously, is fuel efficient cars driven through more densely-built towns and cities, and, needless to say, that is far easier said than done. The question, therefore, is whether the rising costs of exurban life in the coming years pressure people back toward the center, toward shorter drives, better access to mass transit, and even to places where walking and biking is possible.

There are plenty of ways policy might encourage that, but speed limits are certainly one place to start.


Mark Arsenal said...

An interesting perspective. Whilst I applaud any serious policy suggestion that could improve our nation's urban density and push out the day of petrol-reckoning, as this post from another blogger discussed today, not everyone in the suburbs is an evil anti-urbanist who thinks they deserve a McMansion. The housing bubble did odd things to the concept of affordability and choice, especially in the bubbliest of the places:


My own reflection on this earlier today:


Dave Reid said...

Funny, it had never occurred to me that the speed limit change was connected to sprawl. Great insight.

EdHeath said...

First let me point you to www.drive55.org, a virtual voice in the wilderness. Full disclosure, I volunteered to be a local resource for them, but no one has ever called (or more likely emailed).

A few years ago, my older step daughter was marveling at how the Geo/Chevrolet Metro was rated at 44 mpg on the highways, back in the 1980’s. She wondered why no one is making cars like that now. Auto companies are making them now, of course, but for Europe and Japan, not to be sold here.

I myself have committed to the idea of driving 55 on the highway, much to the annoyance of other drivers. I do this actually as part of a low intensity hyper-miling technique. I don’t turn my engine off as I coast down hills, but I do put my stick in neutral (which on some hills results in my drifting over 55 mph while my aftermarket car computer reports my mileage as 350 mpg). My car is a 2002 Hyundai Accent, and at 55 mph on the flats on the highway (of which there are not many in the Pittsburgh area) my aftermarket car computer reports my mileage at around 44, sometimes even around 50mpg (maybe on a slight downhill). My city mileage is much lower, around 30 mpg, varying greatly depending on traffic and whether I can get car up to fourth gear. Needless to say I am not as scrupulous about speed limits in the city.

If you read drive55.org, you will see my results are not atypical, especially when you remember that the EPA revised its mileage standards downwards to take account of people driving with air conditioning on and at speeds more like 65 than 55. So it should be possible for a warm driver going at 55 mph to easily beat the EPA’s estimates for highway mph, and in a Toyota Corolla or Honda Civic get hybrid like results on the highway (remember, hybrids are less efficient on the highway).

Cars over the last twenty years have improved in terms of engine technology, but that improvement has been used to increase horsepower and allow the cars to get bigger. That trend has been reversed only in the latest models of some foreign cars. But if you drive any car at 55 mph instead of 65 or 75, you will get better mileage and save money and oil for future generations.

The reason I emphasize gas mileage at 55 mph is only my personal desire to spend money efficiently (I’m cheap), I suspect the same reason you emphasize it. I care about AGW although I don’t fully understand it and have a bit of skepticism. But I absolutely believe in finite resources, and that we should use oil more wisely so we don’t go down in history as the greedy generation. To that extent I thing that there should be more funds for public transit, to buy and run a larger number of (hopefully) more efficient buses and build more park and rides ringing the cities for suburbanites and exurbanites to use. Combined with more electric bikes and use of public transportation for city dwellers as the way to cut back on our use of gas for commuting, that would be the fastest way to reduce our consumption of gas. Eventually we can look at denser housing with shopping and entertainment nearby, along with light rail or bus routes nearby.

But we also need economic disincentives to encourage people to use buses or bikes. That means we need a European style tax on gasoline (perhaps a flat 100%), with a refundable tax credit of a thousand dollars for people with incomes under twenty thousand (from the proceeds of the tax, the rest going to public transit) to offset the cost of the tax for the poor. Maybe the tax credit would need to then graduate down to zero for people with incomes of up to forty thousand. Also we need to tax parking, in the downtowns of cities and at shopping malls (at park and ride lots you would need a bus or train receipt to exit without paying the tax), to discourage driving.

I know there was some talk last summer about reviving the 55 mph speed limit, among a couple of Congress-persons, when gas hit $4.50 a gallon. But you are right, as of now no one seems to be talking about it, except drive55 and a few bloggers.

Scott said...

What happened to 55? People finally remembered how big this country actually is. Why do you think speed limits in the Western US are generally higher?

Besides if the goal is to reduce traffic deaths we should focus on driver education and vehicle inspections to ensure that cars are well maintained, not to to mention we should stop coddling impaired drivers including those on their cell phones.

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