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.