Between 1974 and 1995, the National Maximum Speed Law set a federally-mandated speed limit for all 50 states. For the first 12 years, the national speed limit was capped at 55, which during the era when engines were hamstrung by poorly designed emissions equipment (and were underpowered and inefficient) added insult to injury. Enacted during the darkest days of the oil crisis, the law was viewed as a means to conserve fuel, and close the gap between fast and slow drivers.
It was demoralizing, cumbersome, and frankly, it didn’t work. But this was an era when the 1975 V8 Mustang needed 215 feet to to go from 70 to zero (an important factor in determining speed limits), did around 14 miles per gallon, and you had about a 50/50 chance of surviving a crash at that speed. In 1996, the year after speed limits went back to a matter for the states, a V8 ‘Stang stopped from 70 in 171 feet, had dual front airbags, anti-lock brakes, and got 22 miles per gallon. Today, a new V8 Mustang can stop from the same speed in 157 feet, has a five-star safety rating from the NHTSA, and returns 25 miles per gallon.
Obviously, a lot has changed since 1974. But as the 2015 Mustang shows, a lot has changed since 1995 too, when the federally mandated limits were dissolved. And while cars have become faster, safer, and more fuel efficient in ways that were unthinkable to lawmakers 40 years ago, the speed limits have barely budged. In an Op-Ed piece that ran in several Texas newspapers, Stephen Boyles, an assistant professor of transportation engineering at the University of Texas at Austin argues that using the same logic the federal government used for the 1974 law, there’s a pretty strong case for raising the speed limits in most parts of the country.
Back during the war on speed, when 55 miles per hour was highlighted on speedometers and they were federally mandated to max out at 85 miles per hour to discourage speeders, these new laws added up to less than 1% of fuel savings, and the decrease in auto fatalities was never higher than the statistical margin of error. Today, as cars handle better at speed, the posted limits are ignored by a significant number of drivers, and it isn’t because drivers are behaving recklessly. New cars, from a Chevy Spark to a Dodge Ram, to a BMW M5 are faster, quieter and safer than their predecessors were 20 years ago, and as cars become more powerful, current speed limits will begin to feel more and more antiquated.
In his Op-Ed, Boyles cites the “85th Percentile” rule that Federal Highway Administration, the National Cooperative Highway Research Program and the Institute of Transportation Engineers all recommend be cited to determine speed limits. If more than one-seventh of regular traffic drives above the current posted speed limit, than steps should be to taken whether or not to raise it in that area.
There are, of course, some pretty big caveats when it comes to raising the speed limit. Most proponents (Boyles included) call for an increase on highways, where traffic is already moving at speed, not in cities, or residential roads. The most obvious precedent for this is the Autobahn, one of the fastest, and safest roadways in the world. Despite its reputation for being a limitless highway system, there’s a suggested speed limit of 130 kilometers per hour, or roughly 80 miles per hour across four-fifths of the system. In urban areas, or areas where there are a higher rate of accidents, lower speed limits are set, and they’re strictly enforced. The highways are inspected and routinely maintained to prevent the condition of the roads from being a factor, and infractions like tailgating and reckless driving are strictly enforced.
With a higher speed limit, and a lower tolerance for reckless driving, Germany’s roadways have a fatality rate of 2.7 per billion kilometers driven. The U.S., with its tightly controlled speed limits is nearly double, at 4.5. For years, the state of the American car industry, and the shape of our highways prevented any talk of a system based on the German highways. But American cars have grown in leaps and bounds in terms of performance and safety over the last decade, and while the conditions of our roads are still a big factor, it’s about time we’re allowed to go faster, safer.
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