A Need for Less Speed? by Mychal Massie

In June, Senator John Warner (R-VA) pushed “cap-and-trade” legislation he claimed would reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Analyses found it would more likely drive up energy prices, drive down the gross domestic product and put untold numbers of people out of work for a dubiously-small reduction in global temperature.

Warner’s terribly unpopular bill failed to muster even enough support for a full Senate vote.

It seems Senator Warner has yet to realize the folly of his regulatory ways.  Now, he’s interested in re-imposing a national maximum speed limit to conserve gasoline and reduce emissions.  But slowing the speed of American progress on our roads is unlikely to save much gas or make highways safer.  The real beneficiaries may actually only be local police and the insurance industry.

Senator Warner launched a trial balloon to put the brakes on Americans in July when he sent a letter to Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman asking for a study on the benefits and feasibility of mandating a lower limit.

During the 1973 oil crisis, Congress ordered the Department of Transportation to withhold highway funds from states not adopting a 55 miles per hour maximum speed limit.  In 1987, Congress rethought its mandate and allowed rural highway speed limits to rise to 65 mph.  The national maximum speed limit was repealed altogether in 1995.

Today, 32 states have speed limits of 70 mph or more.

Despite advocates’ claims, there is no evidence that re-establishing a national maximum speed limit will noticeably lower emissions and save fuel.  In fact, there is something to be said about maintaining the status quo.

In a 1999 CATO Institute study of the old 55-mph speed limit, then-senior economic fellow Stephen Moore noted that “as a fuel-saving measure, the 55-mph speed limit was unquestionably a bust… reduc[ing] U.S. motor fuel consumption by no more than one percent.”  Additionally, current U.S. Department of Energy reports indicate vehicle fuel efficiency rates do not decrease until at least 60 mph.

While the conservation argument fails to justify slowing traffic, the tangential argument that it saves lives is equally thin.  In 1997, two years after the repeal of the maximum speed limit, deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled actually fell.  While the aggregate number of deaths increased by 150, it was far less than the 6,400 deaths projected by the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety – a non-profit advocacy group with strong ties to the insurance industry. 

Since a new national mandate to drive slower will provide negligible – if any – conservation, environmental or safety benefits, just where is the benefit?

The first beneficiary would be local law enforcement.  Evidence suggests that drivers will continue to drive at comfortable speeds regardless of posted limits. Discussing the previous national speed limit, Moore notes, “[t]he 55-mph speed limit was arguably the most disobeyed federal law in American history – or at least since prohibition.” 

Just as drivers continue to travel at speeds they consider safe and comfortable speeds, police officers will be comfortable increasing the number of tickets they write, and municipalities will be comfortable absorbing the extra ticket revenues. 

This would be very lucrative for the insurance industry.  A moving violation on a person’s record gives insurers almost free reign to raise rates.  From my more than 13 years in the insurance industry as an agency owner, and with continued close relationships in said industry, let me assure you that the industry is fully aware of the virtually limitless dollars a national speed limit will bring them. 

It is the unsuspecting public that will be caught between municipalities that will cash in on more tickets and insurance companies raising rates and setting restrictive rate classes designed to swell their profits under the guise of traffic safety.

If Senator Warner is looking for a legacy bill, perhaps he should consider looking elsewhere for something more in-line with the American public.  A recent Rasmussen poll found that 59 percent of voters oppose a lower nationwide speed limit. 

Then again, considering his record, it might be better if Warner just drove off into the sunset.  If only he could go a little faster. 

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Mychal Massie is the chairman of the Project 21 black leadership network and a former owner of an insurance agency.  Comments may be sent to [email protected].

Published by The National Center for Public Policy Research. Reprints permitted provided source is credited. New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21 or the National Center for Public Policy Research.

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