Order Code IB86153
tIMITS FOR EOTQR VEHICLES
Migdon R. Segal
Policy Research Division
ssional Research Service
The national highway speed limit of 55 KPH was first enacted in January
1974 as an energy conservation measure, then kept in place for its perceived
value in reducing the rate of serious accidents.
In April 1987, the Congress
enacted legislation allowing the States to raise the speed limit to 65 MPH on
rural portions of interstate highways. While the advocates of the national
speed limit claim it has saved thousands of lives, the limit has its
opponents, particularly in the western States, who question numbers of lives
saved and charge inconvenience, regionally discriminatory impact, unmerited
economic costs, and the loss of personal freedom associated with the
so-called "double nickel."
A study by the National Academy of Sciences,
completed in 1984, shed further light on the costs and benefits associated
with the speed limit, but left the final decision to the Congress.
During the 99th Congress, bills were introduced, but not enacted, to amend
Most of these bills focused on
or aPolish the national speed limit.
interstate (divided) highways passing through rural areas; the NAS report had
stated that the cost in travel time per life saved was greater on these roads
than on others. Legislation that would have permitted the States to raise
the speed limit to 6 5 MPH on rural portions of interstate highways was
proposed, but did not become law.
In the 100th Congress, similar legislation was introduced, once again in
the form of an amendment to the highway a'uthorization bill.
allowing a 65-MPH limit on rural portions of interstate highways passed the
Senate, but was not voted on by the House.
The conference committee
Considering the highway bill (H.R. 2) decided to put the issue to a Vote in
the House, and the House approved the amendment allowing the speed limit
increase (217-206) on Mar. 1 8 , 1987. The highway authorization bill then was
vetoed by President Reagan, who agreed with the speed limit amendment but
disagreed with other provisions of the bill.
On Apr. 2, 1987, the Congress
overrode the President's veto of H.R. 2, thus it was enacted into law as P.L.
BACKGROUND AND POLICY ANALYSIS
The national speed limit came about as a direct result of the Arab oil
embargo imposed in October 1973, and the ensuing shortage of gasoline which
focused attention on the need to conserve fuel.
Before this time, speed
limits were considered to be a problem best established and enforced by the
States and not by the Federal Government.
drastically during the oil embargo that focused national attention on energy
conservation, and resultea in the passage of several important conservation
In this climate, actions to lower the Nation's highway speeds in
order to save gasoline gained public acceptance.
On Jan. 2, 1974, the
Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act (P.L. 93-239) became law.
this Act, which became effective 6 0 days later, the States were required to
reduce their speed limits to 55 MPH, on all highways and for all types of
motor vehicles. The penalty for noncompliance would be loss of up to 10% of
Federal highway funds. The legislation was to expire on June 30, 1975.
With the lifting of the oil embargo, gasoline supplies soon returned to
normal. Meanwhile, automotive fatalities showed a sharp decline, from 54,052
in 1973 to 45,196 in 1974. While some of this decline could be attributed to
other factors, such a s less driving due to the gasoline shortage, most of the
drop was attributed by
safety experts to the national speed
Accordingly, the Congress acted to make that limit permanent.
1974, the Federal Aid Highway Amendments Act of 1974 was enacted
This legislation cancelled the expiration date on the earlier
enactment, thus making the national speed limit permanent.
State Enforcement of the Speed Limit
Under the Federal legislation, the States face penalties of up to 10% of
their Federal highway funding if they do not enforce the 55-MPH limit
vigorously enough that at least 50% of drivers in the State obey the law.
January 1987, the U.S. Department of Transportation
Arizona had not been in compliance in 1984, and would therefore lose 1 % of
its FY86 funds, or $510,000.
Arizona will be the first State to lose funding
under this law.
Other States recently under investigation for possible
noncompliance include Vermont, Maryland, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island.
Since some surveys have shown up to 75% of motorists violating the speed
limit, there have been allegations that the States resort to "creative
bookkeepingw to show compliance with the Federal law.
Methods used by States
to show compliance are said to include placing
steep upgrades, or having State troopers in highly visible locations near the
Penalties to motorists for speeding vary widely from State to State.
According to Newsweek magazine, the four States with the highest fines for
speeding at 6 5 MPH are Ohio ($loo), Pennsylvania
($72.50) , Kentucky
and Colorado ($64).
The five States with the lowest fines are Montana and
Nevada ($5), and Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota ($10).
Consumer Group Lawsuit to Compel Enforcement
In November 1986, two consumer groups, the Center for Auto Safety and
Public Citizen, filed suit charging DOT with failing to enforce the speed
limit, by failing to withhold funds from States not in compliance. The suit
asks that funds be withheld from Arizona and Vermont, and that the compliance
status of other States be determined and action taken if appropriate.
Two recent polls appear to show that a majority of the American public
continues to favor the 55-MPH limit.
A Gallup Poll released in 1986 found
that 66% of Americans favor the law, with 32% opposed and 2% having no
The speed limit had been favored by 73% in 1974, and support had
then climbed to $ % % in 1980, after whi'ch it declined to its present level.
However, when asked whether they personally observed the speed limit, 17%
reported they observed it all the time, 54% most of the time, 20% not very
often, and 5% never.
The American Automobile Association (AAA) reported that 72% of a national
random sample surveyed in 1985 favored retaining the 55-MPH limit.
pollsters suggested raising the speed limit only on rural portions
interstate highways, 55% disagreed with that proposal.
The speed limit has seemingly boosted sales of radar detectors, popularly
known as wfuzzbusters.l~ These are devices that alert drivers to radar beams,
thus permitting them to slow down and avoid detection a s speeders.
devices are illegal in Connecticut, Virginia, and the District of Columbia,
but are legal elsewhere.
According to Newsweek, one leading producer
these devices sold 400,000 detectors in 1985, a 46% increase over 1984.
detectors sold for $245 to $295 each.
The National Academy of Sciences Study
In December 1982, the Congress included as section 204 of the Surface
Transportation Assistance Act of 1982 (P.L. 97-424) a study of the 55-MPH
The study was to be conducted by the National Academy
"appropriate arrangements" with DOT.
Its purpose was to
(1) The benefits, both human and economic, of lowered speeds due
to the enactment of the 55-MPH National Maximum Speed Limit,
with particular attention to savings to the taxpayers, and
(2) Whether the laws of each State constitute a substantial
deterrent to violations of the maximum speed limit on public
highways within each State.
The study was tc be completed within one year
legislation, which took place on Jan. 6, 1983.
The study was completed in November 1984. The NAS panel found that the
55-MPH national speeAd limit had accounted for 3,000 to 5 # 0 0 0 fewer highway
fatalities in 1974, when first enacted, and that it was still saving 2,000 to
(The decline in lives saved by the speed
4,000 lives per year a s of 1983.
limit was attributed to less effective enforcement of the speed limit and
improvement to roads and vehicles.)
The savings in energy were estimated a t
167,QOO barrels of petroleum per day, or less than 2% of the Nation's highway
This represented an energy saving worth $2 billion
Cost savings to the taxpayer in Government programs that provide
benefits to auto accident victims and their families were estimated a t $65
(The study did not address the overall cost to society,
which would include lost earnings due to injury or death, hospital costs,
auto repair costs, etc.)
Balanced against these savings, the cost of the national speed limit was
said to be travel time.
This was estimated at one billion
hours per year.
For each life saved, plus the avoidance of one serious injury, 350,000 hours
of additional travel time was expended by motorists (approximately 4 0 years).
Since the average life expectancy of motor vehicle accident victims was about
4 1 years, the panel concluded that approximately one year of life was saved
for the expenditure of one year of driving time.
The panel found that compliance with the law had
recent years and that this might lead to a gradual nullification
national speed limit and, therefore, to the loss of the safety and energy
contributions made by the speed limit.
Quoting a 1982 Gallup Poll, the panel
stated that a s of that time 76% of the public supported the national speed
The panel recommended that the 55-MPH speed limit be retained
all of the Nation's highways."
NAS reported that the panel was divided on
the question of speed limits for rural interstate highways, i.e.,
portions of the Nation's interstate highway system in areas not designated by
the Bureau of the Census a s "urbanized"
(population 50,000 or more),
(population 5,000 or more).
The interstate system
characterized by multi-lane highways with uniform
design, with traffic
separated by direction and with controlled access.
These rural interstate
highways represent about 6 % of all road mileage posted a t 5 5 MPH nationally,
and they account for about 1 9 % of all traffic on such roads.
On these roads
the balance between safety and driver time i s skewed
(relative to the
national totals) so that the cost in travel time per life saved i s about four
times greater than i t i s on the rest of the highway system.
concluded that the choice regarding these roads could best be made by
Congress, a s i t involved political and not scientific judgments.
Speed Limit Legislation in the 99th Congress
Eight bills were introduced relating to the speed limit during the 99th
Congress (see Legislation section).
None of these bills received favorable
However, proposals to modify the speed limit were
considered in both the House and the Senate a s amendments to the highway
During House consideration of the highway bill
3129) o n Aug. 6 p 1986, Representative McCurdy offered a n amendment that would
have permitted the States to raise the speed limit to 6 5 MPH o n rural
portions of interstate highways.
The amendment was rejected in a vote o f 198
A similar amendment was
Senator Symms during Senate
consideration of S. 2405, the Senate version of the highway bLll, o n Sept.
Before passing the Symms
23, $986. The amendment carried by 5 6 to 36.
amendment, the Senate had rejected by 3 6 to 60 a stronger amendment proposed
by Senator Mecht, which would have allowed States to raise the limit to 6 5
MPH on all rural highways (not just the interstate highways).
The 99th Congress adjourned in October 1986 without taking final action on
the highway authorization bill.
According to press reports, Senate and House
conferees could not reach agreement on the speed limit, a s well a s other
aspects of the bill.
The reports indicated that the House conferees offered
to agree to the amendment raising the speed limit, provided that the Senate
conferees would agree to restrict the right to increase the limit to States
(1) demonstrate 85% compliance with the higher speed limit,
demonstrate no increase in fatalities on roads with the higher limit,
demonstrate a 6 5 % rate sf safety belt use, and
(4) outlaw the radar
This offer was reportedly unacceptable to the Senate conferees.
Speed Limit Legislation in the 100th Congress
Since the 99th Congress adjourned without enacting a highway authorization
bill, the 100th Congress was under Considerable pressure to enact such a bill
as soon as possible so that Federal aid to the State governments for highway
construction would not be interrupted.
The Congress therefore acted on
highway authorizing legislation early i n 1 9 8 7 , and once
legislation became the vehicle for congressional Consideration of changes to
the speed limit law.
The highway authorization bill, H.R. 2, passed the House on Jan. 21, 1987,
under a "closed rule" that did not allow a speed limit amendment to be
In the Senate, an amendment to the highway bill
(S. 387) was
offered by Senator Symms; the amendment,' similar to his earlier effort,
allowed the States the option of raising the speed limit to 6 5 MPH on rural
portions of interstate highways.
The Symms amendment was approved (65-33) by
the Senate on Feb. 3, 1987.
The House and Senate conferees meeting
on the highway
themselves deadlocked over the Symms amendment, With
Senate conferees in
favor and House conferees opposed.
Ultimately the amendment was put to a
separate Vote in both Houses. The House approved the amendment (217-206) on
Mar. 18, 1987; the Senate followed suit (60-21) on Mar. 20, 1987.
technically were on H.Con.Res. 77, "to make a correction relating to the
maximum speed limit in the enrollment of H.R. 2 - " )
President Reagan vetoed H.R. 2 on Mar. 27, 1987; he supported
limit amendment, but believed the highway construction spending levels to be
The Congress overrode the President's
veto, the House voting
(350-73) on Mar. 31, 1987, and the Senate voting (67-33) on Apr.
2 , 1987,
2 and its speed
exactly the two-thirds vote needed for an override.
limit amendment were thus enacted into law.
Each State now has the
or part of rural portions
indications are that many
to raise the speed limits
Changing the Speed Limit
option of raising the speed limit to 6 5 MPH on all
of interstate highways w.ithin that State.
States, particularly in the West, Will act quickly
on their rural interstates.
Pros and Cons
The arguments in favor of retaining the present 55-MPH national speed
limit are based on the claimed reductions in highway fatalities and in fuel
consumed. These reductions were estimated by the NAS panel to be from 2,000
to 4,000 lives per year, and 167,000 barrels of petroleum per day, which
nearly 2% of the Nation's highway fuel consumption.
Critics of the speed limit contest the view that "speed kills."
view, the truly hazardous factor on the highway is variation in speed among
A high average speed would not be
the vehicles using the road.
hazardous, in this view, if weather and road conditions are proper for that
speed and if there are few slow-moving vehicles to disrupt the flow of
However, speed limit advocates counter that raising the limit would
not diminish variations in speed among vehicles and might even increase them,
since there are drivers who do not feel comfortable at high speeds and would
not exceed 55 MPH even if that limit were raised.
Also, in this view, some
individuals would always drive faster than the limit by 5-10 MPH, believing
that the police will not ticket them unless they exceed the limit by more
Fuel savings, in the view of speed limit opponents, are conceded to exist
but claimed not to be worth the cost. For example, a motorist might save $5
in gasoline costs on a 550-mile trip by traveling at 5 5 MPH instead of
MPH; however, the trip would take two hours longer.
Therefore, if the
motorist.'s time was valued a t more than $2.50 per hour, h e or she would
by traveling a t the lower speed.
Truckers make this point with particular emphasis, since their living
depends on the amount of time required to move a cargo from point t o point.
In the truckers' strike of January 1983, one of the initial demands by the
strikers was for repeal of the 55-MPH limit.
A particular case against the speed limit i s made by residents of sparsely
set-tled western States, who claim that the limit is unrealistic for their
(Note that the eight bills introduced i n the 99th
Congress were all sponsored by Members from western States, with the
exception of the Jeffords bill which would address a specific Vermont problem
and would not otherwise alter the limit.)
In this view, Westerners contend
that they frequently must travel on roads that stretch for hundreds of miles
across open Country, with good visibility and light traffic, and the 55-MPH
limit under these circumstances i s considered to be an unnecessary and
The argument concerning particular western driving conditions can be
broadened to a more generalized concern that too many decisions are made by
the Federal Government that could better be made a t State and local levels of
In this view, highway speed limits should be determined by
officials in the particular States who understand traffic and road conditions
there, not by those in Washington who may be unfamiliar with those
This argument F,ight be countered by the contention that a uniform national
speed limit i s useful since people often drive i n States other than their own
and change resiOences from one State to another, and may find i t difficult to
change their driving habits.
P.L. 100-17, H.R. 2
Authorizes funds for construction of highways, f o r highway safety
programs, and for mass transportation programs, to expand and improve the
relocation assistance program, and for other purposes.
Introduced Jan. 6 ,
1987; referred to Committee on Public Works and Transportation.
Called up by
special rule; passed House, amended, Jan. 21, 1987. Called up by unanimous
consent; passed Senate, amended, in lieu of S.
held. Conference report filed in House (H.Rept. 100-27) Mar.
1 7 to which
House and Senate agreed Mar. 19. Vetoed by the President
Mar. 27. Motion to override passed House (350-73) Mar.
31; passed Senate
(67-33) Apr. 2 , 1987; becoming P.L. 100-17.
S o 487 (Burdick)
Authorizes appropriations for certain highways in accordance with Title
2 3 , U.S.C., and for other purposes.
[Includes Symms amendment to allow
65-MPH speed iimit on rural interstate highways.] Introduced Jan.
2 7 , 1987;
referred to Committee on Environment and Public Works.
Reported to Senate
(S.Rept. 100-4) Jan. 2 7 , 1987. Called up by unanimous consent; text inserted
i n H.R. 2 a s passed by Senate Feb. 4, 1987. Measure indefinitely postponed
House. Committee on Public Works and Transportation,
Subcommittee on Surface Transportation.
To examine the enforcement and monitoring of the 55-mile-per-hour speed limit. 99th
Congress, 1st Session. July 23, 1985. Washington, U.S. Govt.
Print. Off., 1985. 55 p.
House. Committee on Science and Technology.
Subcommittee on Transportation, Aviation, and Materials.
The 55-MPH speed
limit. 99th Congress, 1st session. Feb. 21, 1985. Washington,
U-S. Govt. Print. Off., 1985. 320 p.
CHRONOLOGY O F EVENTS
99th Congress adjourns with conferees deadlocked over
speed limit amendments to highway authorization bill.
Senate approves amendment to highway bill allowing
States to raise limit to 6 5 MPH on rural interstate
House votes against amendment to highway bill allowing
States to raise limit to 6 5 MPH on rural interstate
Surface Transportation Assistance Act enacted; includes
request for NAS study on speed limit.
Federal-Aid Highway Amendments Act enacted; includes
provision making 55-MPH speed limit permanent.
Emergency Highway Energy C.onservation Act enacted;
includes temporary 55-MPH speed limit.
Speed limit amendment became law when Congress overrode
President's veto of highway bill.
House approved speed limit amendment to highway bill by a
vote of 217-206.
Senate approved amendment to highway bill allowing States
to raise limit to 6 5 MPH on rural interstate highways.
House voted for highway legislation under closed rule
forbidding speed limit amendment.
NAS report published, recommending that speed limit be
retained for most roads, but panel was divided on speed
limits for rural interstate highways.
ADDITIONAL REFERENCE SOURCES
Conferees unable to resolve differences on highway bill.
times, Oct. 1 9 , 1986: 30.
Does speed kill?
Newsweek, July 21, 1986:
End the 55-MPH limit?
news and world report, June 8 , 1981:
Gallup reports changing attitudes on belt use, 55-MPH limit.
Highway and vehicle safety report, Aug. 4 , 1986:
House clears 6 5 mph for interstates.
House leaders offer speed limit compromise.
Sept. 27, 1986: A-6.
Majority of Americans still support national 55-MPH speed limit.
IIHS status report, v. 21, no. 5 * Apr. 26, 1986: 2.
Myths and misconceptions about 55-MPH speed limit.
report, v. 21, no. 5 , April 26, 1986: 2.
National Academy of Sciences. Transportation research board.
A decade of experience.
(Special report 204.)
Senate again moves to raise speed limit on rural
interstates. Washington post, Feb. 4 , 1987:
States put pedal to metal for 6 5 - m p h . Washington
The 55 speed limit.
IPHS Facts, published by the Insurance Institute
for Highway Safety, Feb. 1987. 4 p.
The 55-miles-per-hour is ineffective and inappropriate.
and material inserted by Senator Symms.)
[daily ed.], Aug. 5, 1986: S10499-S10500.
Two States likely to lose 10% of Federal highway funds.
report, v. 21, no. 8, June 28, 1986: 3.
Dept. of Transportation.
National Highway Traffic Safety
Chronology of the 55-MPH speed limit decision.
Extracted from Braddock, Dunn, and HcDonald, Inc. Impact
considerations of the nation 55-MPH speed limit (background).
Interim report NSF-BDM/W74-065-tr.
What's wrong with 55 MPH?
Consumers research magazine, v . 6 3 , Aug.