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Speed, er, saves

Speed limits, especially highway speed limits, are one of those things that bring out the inner libertarian in many Americans. Which is to say, when Americans get on the open road, they tend to drive as fast as they damn well please. Even on crowded urban freeways, the speed limit is routinely ignored. It is universally assumed that the occasional ticket is just a cost of doing business, and that speed limit enforcement isn’t about public safety but about revenue generation.

On the flip side, few things will get a nanny stater on his high horse faster than automotive travel. In some ways, the 55 mph speed limit (signed into law by Richard Nixon, no friend of limited government, but widely associated with Jimmy Carter, the very model of a modern nanny stater) stands as a high watermark of government bossiness. Aside from claims about gas savings (about which more later), 55 mph is universally lauded by Our Betters as saving lives.

Except, it does no such thing. When the 55 mph federal mandate was being repealed:

Ralph Nader claimed that “history will never forgive Congress for this assault on the sanctity of human life.” Judith Stone, president of the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, predicted to Katie Couric on NBC’s “Today Show” that there would be “6,400 added highway fatalities a year and millions of more injuries.” Federico Pena, the Clinton Administration’s Secretary of Transportation, declared: “Allowing speed limits to rise above 55 simply means that more Americans will die and be injured on our highways.”

So were St. Ralph and his cohort of busybodies correct? The envelope, please:

We now have 10 years of evidence proving that the only “assault” was on the sanctity of the truth. The nearby table shows that the death, injury and crash rates have fallen sharply since 1995. Per mile traveled, there were about 5,000 fewer deaths and almost one million fewer injuries in 2005 than in the mid-1990s. This is all the more remarkable given that a dozen years ago Americans lacked today’s distraction of driving while also talking on their cell phones.

Of the 31 states that have raised their speed limits to more than 70 mph, 29 saw a decline in the death and injury rate and only two – the Dakotas – have seen fatalities increase. Two studies, by the National Motorists Association and by the Cato Institute, have compared crash data in states that raised their speed limits with those that didn’t and found no increase in deaths in the higher speed states.

So what about conservation? Everyone opposed to driving fast parrots the bare fact that driving 55 mph is more efficient, but oddly no one seems to mention what percentage we could reduce our total energy use if everyone did so. Given that most driving is done off the freeways, one suspects that the global impact of 55 mph is not great. While there is no doubt that driving slower uses less gas, driving slower is not cost free:

Americans have also arrived at their destinations sooner, worth an estimated $30 billion a year in time saved, according to the Cato study.

So do not forget to offset any savings with the cost of achieving them.

Efficiency is good, no doubt about that. Efficiency is generally not achieved via government mandate, but by the to and fro of the market. All things being equal, a more efficient gizmo, automotive or otherwise, is more attractive the consumer.

So what is the case for 55 mph? Like so many nanny state initiatives, it is rooted not so much in safety (impact: minimal) or efficiency (net global impact: minimal), but in a puritanical desire to control.

30 comments to Speed, er, saves

  • Binty

    I usually adhere to the 55mph limit when on my bicycle, except when passing soccer moms in their Volvo SUVs.

  • I agree with this article as far as it goes. However, if memory serves me, when they changed the speed limits, didn’t they also start implementing seat belt laws? Any chance that these studies included this in their research?

    Just my two cents.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    RCD, is there comparable data on say, Britain, France and particularly, Germany (with its no-limit autobahns)?

    The core of what you say makes a lot of sense, though. What kills is not speed per se but lousy driving, lack of understanding of the vehicle, impatience. For instance, on a recent trip to Portugal with fellow Samizdata contributor Michael Jennings, I tried to keep a safe distance from the car in front of me, as one is supposed to do. But every time some idiot would overtake me and go into the gap, negating my approach.

    Driving standards in places like Italy, Spain, Malta (they are nuts) are dreadful, and I don’t think it is speed that is the main issue. In France, they drive fast but most drivers appear to be more competent than in Britain.

    The last time I drove in the ‘States (northern California), I really enjoyed my motoring and thought standards were pretty good, although folk don’t use the high-speed ovetaking lanes on the freeways properly.


  • Ross Maartin

    I’ll agree with Chet with re-guards to seat belts laws being introduced. As far as the rates of fatality and injuries, they might well be comparing apples and oranges. Again, that depends in their definitions of data the researchers applied. However, they do have a two metrics that would be unadulterated by seat belt use. That of ‘Crashes’ and ‘Pedestrian deaths’. Both showed a decline of 33% and 16% respectively.

    Back to seat belts. Does anyone have any idea how my failing to use a seat belt infringes upon the rights of others?


  • Richard Thomas

    Having lived here for five years, I can say the best way the USA could conserve fuel is to get rid of all the bloody infuriating four-way stops and replace those that are really needed with roundabouts and the rest with prioritised junctions.


  • Blue Falcon

    “Having lived here for five years, I can say the best way the USA could conserve fuel is to get rid of all the bloody infuriating four-way stops and replace those that are really needed with roundabouts and the rest with prioritised junctions.”

    This was tried in New England and resulted in disaster. Most of the four way stops are built in densely populated areas where a large enough rotary can not be built to serve the flow of traffic at a high speed everyone wants to drive at. Maybe in rural areas this could be a solution, but most of the older roads simply don’t have the space for them.

  • Mary Contrary

    This talk of 55mph being the most fuel-efficient speed to travel has been around a long time. Long enough, in fact, that it entirely possible changes in engine technology have completely falsified it. We didn’t always have computer-controlled fuel injection, and I can quite imagine that there’s now a much broader range of speeds which can be considered optimal from a fuel-efficiency point of view.

    Does anyone amongst the commentariat know enough about automotive technology to season my speculation with a light dusting of facts?

  • Robert Sealey

    Quite right!

    Speed itself is not the problem and never has been.

    The British 70mph motorway speed limit was introduced as a four month experiment in 1965. The government of the day admitted it had not reduced the number of accidents, but made it permanent anyway.

    Meanwhile, Germany’s largely limit-free autobahns are safer than Britain’s motorways, while some of the most dangerous highways in Europe are in Greece, where the limit is 62mph.

    As for the fuel-efficency argument, catalytic converters increase fuel consumption by about 10%. Switching to an alternative technology, such as stratified charge or lean burn, would save far more fuel than lower highway speed limits.

  • permanent expat

    Johnathan: The first Portuguese rule of the road is “Thou shalt not drive behind another vehicle.” We rejoice in being the #1 bad motorists in Europe & #3, I think, in World ranking. Although I’ve lived in this wonderful country for some time, I haven’t seen much of it. I simply dare not take my eyes off the road.

  • Regarding the notion that the 55mph limit is about safety:

    A friend whose area of expertise is mass transit history once pointed out to me that American freeways were designed so that cars from the 1950s, which didn’t handle anywhere near as well as modern cars, could safely travel at 75mph.

  • ResidentAlien

    Does anyone have any idea how my failing to use a seat belt infringes upon the rights of others?

    In the event of an accident an unrestrained body is more likely to leave the vehicle and cause damage to other people or property. We expect cargo vehicles to have their cargo properly secured, so why not apply the same principle to humans in vehicles?

    That being said I think that the question of whether or not to wear a seatbelt is overwhelmingly one of individual safety and should be left to the individual. I expect that the evidence of damage caused by unrestrained bodies flying out of vehicles is quite patchy. But, I think that there is more grounds for compelling seatbelt use than helmet use on motorbikes.

  • FWIW, Neal Boortz says becoming a projectile (whether flying through your side window or windshield) in a crash endangers others on the highway, and scares the crap out of still more others.

  • Well, here in the Free State, we still have no seatbelt requirement for adults (no motorcycle helmet law, either). We get about 60% voluntary seat belt use, and there is no greater accident, death, or injury rate for NH than for other states in the region (note: we raised our speed limits first in the Northeast after the 55 federal limit was abolished).

    The primary determinant of accident, and related injury and death rates is due to several things: traffic congestion, frequency of brake and tire inspection and repair, percent of vehicles with airbags and/or anti-lock braking, the percent of teenagers and senior citizens on the road, and the biggie is the rate of drug and alcohol impeded driving. The 20 year campaign against drunk driving in this country is the number one impact on reduced accidents.

    Now, one reason the autobahn has a lower accident rate is because autobahns are laid out as a constant link of slow arcs. This allows drivers in heavy traffic to see congestion long before they reach it. Too many areas of US highways are dead straight lines that don’t allow this, which contributes to stop and go traffic as well as rear enders.

  • Richard Thomas

    This was tried in New England and resulted in disaster. Most of the four way stops are built in densely populated areas where a large enough rotary can not be built to serve the flow of traffic at a high speed everyone wants to drive at. Maybe in rural areas this could be a solution, but most of the older roads simply don’t have the space for them.

    Bluefalcon, England *is* a densely populated area.

    Welcome to the “mini roundabout”. Whilst generally inferior to a full roundabout, they are far superior to a four-way stop in that firstly, there is never any confusion about priority and secondly, if there are no other vehicles in the picture, there is no actual requirement to stop. The combination of these two also removes that perenial pest, the person who stops before you have (usually quite a while before) but refuses to go until you have stopped.

    In short, there is nothing about USA roads that make them roundabout incapable, merely inertia.


  • Rob

    “Americans have also arrived at their destinations sooner, worth an estimated $30 billion a year in time saved, according to the Cato study”
    This is an interesting point and one which I have felt has been ignored for many years. If one regards the road system as a machine for delivering vehicles to a destination, like all machines, the faster you run it, the more productive it becomes. Has anyone done the research to calculate the cost to the economy of unnecessarily low speed limits and traffic calming measures? My guess is it would be considerale.

  • Rob


  • Kim du Toit

    Roundabouts in the U.S.?


    There are a few, in New Jersey, except with an interesting wrinkle: the drivers INSIDE the circle have to yield to incoming traffic (instead of the reverse, like everywhere else).

    I nearly killed myself four times during the first hour I ever drove in New Jersey.

    Incidentally, the reason that the accident stats are lower in Germany than in the UK is that the Germans are better drivers than the Brits. Certainly, their licensing process is more arduous, and more subject to withdrawal than in the UK.

    Most American drivers wouldn’t pass the test in Germany, either.

    One last thing: the reason traffic fatalities increased in Montana is because the state government, famously, did not set any speed limits for the freeways, and people were rocketing through the state at 100mph+ speeds on roads which were never designed to be driven that way, and were in no condition to be driven that way either. After about a year (I think) of mayhem and “blood on the highways”, Montana imposed a 75mph limit.

  • Kim du Toit

    Oh, and Ralph Nader embodies the “180” rule: when Nader says we should do something, our interests are best served by doing the polar opposite.

  • Sam


    I’m not an automotive engineer, but…

    At high speeds, most of the energy used is to overcome wind resistance, which is basically proportional to the square of your speed. This factor is completely independent of engine technology–the way to improve this is to produce a vehicle shape with less drag. I think the other important factors are rolling resistance in tires (proportional to vehicle weight–the constant depends on the tire technology) and powertrain losses (I think this basically depends on what “gear” you are in).

    Putting this together, most likely the most efficient speed to travel in is at the minimum speed for one of the “gears”. (On my car, I typically shift into 5th gear at around 45 mph, and I suspect that or the speed I shift into 4th gear is likely to be the most fuel efficient speed to travel in.)

  • The Dakotas and Montana also have a lot of OLD people and bad weather.

    Drowsy driving is a huge problem, too, and American interstates are mesmerizing. The only thing that keeps my mind engaged is talk radio. (I suppose with some effort I could try audiobooks.)

    I’m extremely cautious about drowsy driving. I’ll drive 4-8 hours to go work a regatta, for which I wake up early on a Saturday and put in a 12-hour (or more) day, then drive home again. I am famous for my “road naps.” People think it’s dangerous to snooze in a rest area, but it’s far more dangerous to self and others to drive drowsy. Why do you think it’s called a REST area? Leave glasses within reach, motor running, doors locked, able to make a quick getaway if harassed, which has never happened.

    I had a school friend who as a young woman (18?) fell asleep at the wheel and hit a bridge abutment on an interstate in Florida. She was in a coma for years and when she woke up, she was semi-paralyzed. That taught me more caution than any driver’s ed film.

    I consider the risks of my frequent long distance travel to do long hours of physically tiring work to be a greater risk to my life and health than having had cancer recently, so I have great free market solutions for my self-created safety net. (I don’t expect a nanny state to restrict my freedom to choose to do these activities, nor provide for me if I end up a veg.) I have great health insurance, life insurance, long term disability insurance, and long term care insurance.

    I think riding motorcycles and ATV’s helmet free should require a similar excellent package of insurance so your risk taking doesn’t impose on others.

    Re: speeding tickets. I usually stay within the right to speed law (10 mph over highway speed limit). I guess that’s another one of those unspecified 9th amendment rights?! LOL But sometimes I boo boo. That’s why I have a friend in law enforcement to fix any tickets for me (if from my state) and the occasional traffic school (allowed once every two years) to expunge any others. Just signed up for traffic school, actually. $15 to keep points off my insurance? Helluvadeal.

    Re seat belt laws, the feds did another bribe scheme to threaten to withhold federal highway funds if a state didn’t pass a law they wanted. (That’s how we got 55 speet limits, 21 as a drinking age, seat belt law.) Not wearing your seat belt is now a PRIMARY offense, not merely a secondary one. Meaning, previously, you could get ticketed for not wearing your seat belt if you were pulled over for another offense (like speeding), but now, you can get pulled over JUST for not wearing your seat belt!

    A national ID tie in: in my state, the new driver’s licenses have a scramble code on the back, which is scannable, so tickets are entered directly into the computer and go straight to Frankfort (state capitol). These straight-to-computer tickets are unfixable! So, resistanzistas like me have taken nail polish remover and smeared the scramble code. It forces the copper to write a manual, paper ticket…hence, fixable. Where did I learn this tip? My ticket fixin’ friend in law enforcement!

    Oh, quit whining about what scofflaws we are. I have the organ donor designation on my license. Figure it might come in handy if my fast driving proves fatal. LOL

  • Alex

    Ive driven many many miles around the UK (enough to drive around the world twice). During heavy traffic (on motorways) mandatory 55Mph signs light up, these signs deffientley help to break the stop/start of people zooming up peoples arses and then slamming their breaks on. But are rather absurd when claiming that there is haevy congestion when its plain as day that theres no other cars on the road!

    Do you think that some of the reduction in road accidents is due to better cars eg ABS and traction control which are now standard on many cars but back in the 90s (and remember back then a lot of cars on the road would have been built in the 80s or even earlier, my first car in 1998 was built in 1979) were only available on luxury models?

  • llamas

    I second Mary’s curiosity.

    mrrs llamas’ minivan has an instant- and average-fuel-economy display. I assume it’s accurate, at least relatively speaking. I play with this thing on longer journeys. I’ve found that the best sustained average fuel economy on the freeway – here in the MidWest at least – is at between 65 and 70 mph. More to the point, driving with a lead foot in town has far more impact on fuel economy than the exact, constant speed that you travel on the freeway.



  • rosignol

    Even on crowded urban freeways, the speed limit is routinely ignored.

    We don’t ignore it, we think of it as the recommended minimum.

    Re roundabouts- I recently visited a european country that was full of the bloody things. While they seemed to work fairly well when there weren’t any other cars on the road, they became obnoxious to traverse during peak times.

    I am uncertain if this is an inherent design flaw, or just another way that particular government discourages it’s citizens from owning automobiles*

    *the other ways involve an arduous and expensive licensing requirement, taxing the hell out of gasoline, and taxing the hell out of the vehicles themselves.

  • Daveon

    I’ve lived in the US and drive there pretty much every month. Roundabouts would improve matters no end, even mini ones. Providing, of course, you don’t do something as moderately nuts as giving priority to traffic joining. Sheesh, even the French have given up on that one.

    While the Autobahns are safer than Motorways, I seem to recall that overall Germany has more road deaths elsewhere… might be wrong on that. I’ve not noticed the Germans are great drivers – most of the taxi’s I’ve been in have been driven by right nutters.

    Anyway, the problem has never really been motorways (q.v. Germany); the problem is urban roads particuarly residential and school zones.

    I suspect you’d see more improvement in road deaths from enforced 20mph zones around schools and homes and no speed limit on UK motorways than from lowering the motorway limit.

  • Tedd McHenry

    There’s a good, general discussion of speed versus fuel efficiency here.

  • jim

    I want variable speed limits.
    Say, between 8-10pm, 65mph goes up to 75mph.

    Hard to implement? nope.
    I designed a gizmo to do it. Cheap, open source.
    Take a look.

  • Paul

    Put 1200 miles in over the turkey day holiday. The danger is due to the odd ducks who either do not go back into the right lane once they have overtaken slower traffic or should never have gone into the left lane to begin with. They clog the left lane and then impatient people get progressively crazier in trying to dislodge the left lane squatters. Saw it over and over and over. Enforcing the “Stay right, except to pass” laws rather than arbitrary speed laws would enhance safety. Enforcing tailgating laws wouldn’t hurt either. Enforce those two rather than speed and people would be HAPPY to see the cruiser sitting in the median strip. Go get ’em Smokey!

  • Rant

    Dragging up an old thread but:

    One reason 55mph is most efficient is that fuel economy figures are always quoted at a constant 56mph so manufacturers tend to optimise their cars to give the best figures at this speed.

    Acceleration uses far more fuel consumption than out and out speed. A constant 80mph on the motorway will generally give pretty good fuel economy, stop start driving in heavy traffic at much lower speeds will give much worse economy.

    Gearing is important too. My BMW 328 had a good high top gear and would do 90mph at about 3000 revs, hence return better fuel economy than my first car, a Fiat Panda, if I buried my right foot in the floor and wound it up to 85mph

    The notion that driving faster gets you there significantly quicker is none sense. Sorry, it’s nice nonesense to believe, but it really is none sense. I used to have a 30 mile commute across mainly backroads which if I left early in the morning were practically deserted. I got to put this theory to the test quite comprehensively. Over 30 miles the difference between steady normal driving at about the speed limit (60mph most of the way) and driving as close to flat out as is reasonable on a public road was about 4 minutes.

    The trouble is as soon as you come up behind a lorry or tractor, even if it’s only for a few corners, or hit traffic or stop at a junction, the gains (which are smaller than you think) disappear (faster than you think)

    Try taking note of lorries next time you’re on the motorway. Trundling along at a constant 60mph or whatever they do, lorries from miles back will pass you when you stop for fuel.

    Driving fast is only dangerous in the crudest sense – if you didn’t move you wouldn’t crash, if you crashed slower it wouldn’t be as bad. In this sense all accidents are caused by excess speed.

    In the real world, the best lesson in road safety is to go to a scrap yard and have a look at the crashed cars. I’ll guarantee that for every car you see that’s skidded out of control at excessive speed, you’ll see handfulls that have rear ended someone, been rear ended, or both, been smacked from the side at a junction, been cut up by a dozy lane change or otherwise found themselves first at the scene of the accident with no reason to believe that speed in itself was a factor.

    Furthermore, I believe that speed differentials actually make motorway driving safer.

    When each driver picks his own speed there is a broader range of speeds that cars travel. The time they are in close proximity, and especially the time that they are in blindspots is reduced. That bit of western M25 around London where they have variable speed limits is the worst. Everyone driving at 70, then 60 then 40 (for no reason) then back up to 60 again, all braking before the cameras. I don’t know how there aren’t more accidents there.

    For those who are lucky enough not to know this bit of road, it is a normal motorway, but a section of it to the west of London has variable speed limits enforced by cameras in overhead gantries roughly ever 1/4 mile. It’s as bad as it sounds.

    Finally driving fast is safer because it keeps you alert and awake. Driving along the motorway hour after hour at 70mph is one of the dullest passtimes imaginable. Driving the same bit of road in a good car at speed can, for me, be one of the most enjoyable.

    Most of all though, driving fast is fun. You pay for your pleasure in a bit of extra fuel, but even at the current prices it’s really not that bad. And yes, if you crash you’re more likely to hurt yourself if you’re traveling faster, but so what? Lot’s of things are more dangerous than their less appealing alternatives. Skiing is more dangerous than knitting, swimming with sharks is more dangerous than playing scrabble. All still perfectly legitimate passtimes depending on your mood and your tastes.

  • charlesrichard

    Hi everyone, wishing goodluck one and all of this community, have a nice day, thank u
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  • If people weren’t such crazy drivers, then I wouldn’t be in business. I’m scared to drive on the road at night.