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Safety, Speed Limits, And The Nanny State

by @ 8:02 am on July 8, 2006. Filed under Individual Liberty

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal took on the commonly held belief that the higher speed limits that have resulted from Congress’s repeal of the 55 mile-per-hour speed limit have resulted in more dangerous highways. Reality, as the Journal points out, has proven to be far different from the gloom and doom that accompanied the repeal:

In 2005, according to new data from the National Highway Safety Administration, the rate of injuries per mile traveled was lower than at any time since the Interstate Highway System was built 50 years ago. The fatality rate was the second lowest ever, just a tick higher than in 2004


This may seem non-controversial now, but at the time the debate was shrill and filled with predictions of doom. 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, its been ten years since the repeal, and, as the Journal points out, the evidence not only doesn’t establish that Nader et al were right, but that they were, in fact, horribly wrong:

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.

Does this mean that increasing speed limits makes us safer drivers ? Of course, not. It means that increasing speed limits has not had a measurable impact on the number of car accidents. The real reasons those accidents have declined are more complex. Car technology has improved measurably over the past ten years, and cars built today are safer so that if you do get into an accident, you’re more likely to survive. They also come with more technology designed to prevent an accident from happening in the first place.

And then there are the other benefits that accrue from getting rid of an unrealistically slow speed limit:

Jim Baxter, president of the National Motorists Association, says that by the early 1990s “compliance with the 55 mph law was only about 5%–in other words, about 95% of drivers were exceeding the speed limit.” Now motorists can coast at these faster speeds without being on the constant lookout for radar guns, speed traps and state troopers. Americans have also arrived at their destinations sooner, worth an estimated $30 billion a year in time saved, according to the Cato study.

In reality, the 55 mile-per-hour speed limit was, as the Journal points out, the most disobeyed law since Prohibition. Traffic speed on most interstates averaged well above 55 miles-per-hour well before the limit was repealed, and police typically didn’t pursue drivers going, say 5-10 miles over the limit. Repealing the speed limit was simply a recognition of reality.

It does, however, point to one inescapable conclusion:

We are often told, by nanny-state advocates, that such public goods as safety require a loss of liberty. In the case of speed limits and traffic deaths, that just isn’t so.

If only Washington would recognize that reality as it applied to other areas of our lives.

Further thoughts at Outside The Beltway

One Response to “Safety, Speed Limits, And The Nanny State”

  1. T F Stern says:

    I kept waiting for a ban on private cars, just like guns. If we get rid of the nasty ole’ cars just think how many of the children we will save…

    Never let the facts interfere with a good arguement. I will keep this one for later when they start their 55 mantra again. Here in Houston, when the 55 saves lives garbage didn’t work, they went around the corner and used the arguement that vehicles spew more emissions into the air when they go over 55. That lasted almost a year before the facts proved otherwise.

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