June 25, 2003, 9:05 a.m.
Speed Doesn’t Kill
Truth about the roads.

ou may not have noticed last week, because the news media gave the good news scant attention, but the U.S. Department of Transportation reported that last year the traffic-injury rate on the highways fell to its lowest level — ever. This is not just reassuring news for those of us who actually travel around in that dreaded machine that liberals loathe, called the automobile, but it also helps discredit a pervasive nanny-state myth that raising speed limits on highways leads to higher death rates.

Let's put this wonderful I-told-you-so story into context. Eight years ago the Republicans in Congress, much to the infuriation of the do-gooder lobby, repealed the federal 55 miles-per-hour speed-limit law. States were now allowed to raise their speed limits to whatever level they wished. This was one of the Republican Congress's enduring and under-appreciated accomplishments.

The dim-witted 55-mph speed-limit law was originally enacted in 1974 during the energy crisis to save gasoline. Then later when the energy crisis ended with Reagan's decontrol of oil and natural-gas markets, advocates of the federal speed-limit law changed their argument. Now they preached that we needed "55 to save lives." It didn't matter to the Ralph Nader, Joan Claybrook, and most of the Democrats in Congress, that to travel 55 miles per hour in spacious Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, or thousands of miles of other uncongested highways across America, required motorists to travel at an absurdly slow pace.

It didn't matter that a federal speed-limit law was an assault against states rights to set their own limits. By the early 1990s, many state troopers in western states were so fed up with the federal law that they refused to enforce it. In some states cops were instructed by state legislators to write speeders a $5 ticket and give the driver a receipt because the ticket was "good for the whole day."

The Cato Institute recently calculated that the repeal of the 55-mph speed-limit law saved motorists between $2 and $5 billion a year in income and hundreds of millions of hours that were not spent wasted in their cars. To most Americans, time is money. "Drivers have the right to travel at safe speeds legally and not have to worry constantly about getting pulled over," insists Jim Baxter, of the National Motorists Association. He's right, of course. We should all appreciate the more reasonable speed-limit laws that the Republicans gave us the next time we're driving 70 safely down the highway and we're not breaking the law.

Ralph Nader and his nanny-state splinter groups don't see it that way. In 1995 when the 55-miles-per-hour speed-limit law was repealed, Nader spewed moral indignation. He claimed that "history will never forgive Congress for this assault on the sanctity of human life." Joan Claybrook said that there would be 6,400 added deaths per year and "millions of additional injuries on the highways." We were told that the interstate highway system would come to resemble the raceway of the Indianapolis 500.

Advocates of the new law — like me — countered that allowing a reasonable increase in speed limits would save billions of hours of time for motorists, reduce business transportation costs by billions of dollars a year, and would not lead to any appreciable rise in the death rate. The cause of crashes on the highways is not higher speed limits. Crashes are caused by reckless and aggressive driving, drunk drivers, and the selfish nitwits who talk on their cell phones while at the wheel and don't pay attention to the road. Transportation experts also pointed out that if Nader were truly for increasing safety on the roads, he would call for the repeal of the Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency Standards, which impel people to buy lighter weight, less safe cars, and thus increases highway deaths by at least 1,000 a year.

Now here is the good news. Since 1995 when the speed limits were raised to 75 and 80 mph in some states, the death rate on the highways has fallen dramatically. It has not risen. The injury rate has fallen too. It turns out the 6,400 additional deaths prediction was a complete fabrication. The 40 states that have raised their speed limits to 65 or above have not seen much difference at all in their injury rates from those states that kept their speed limits at 55. The nation's roads and highways are "safer than ever" proclaims the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The Nader groups, you might think would now be forced to eat some crow and admit that they were spreading lies when they claimed a big loss of life from higher speed limits. No. Now they say that what they had predicted was "as many as 6,400 added deaths." Well, I guess, zero is technically "as many as 6,400." But of course, that is like saying that I might hit as many as 75 homeruns in the major leagues this year.

One last point: Imagine for a moment that the death rate had spiked up this year and in previous years. You can bet that Ralph Nader and Joan Claybrook would be on every TV talk show pontificating about how Republicans in Congress have blood on their hands. Instead, when the improved traffic safety numbers were released, almost no major media outlet made notice. Few if any called the safety groups to task for their false doom and gloom predictions. The media seems as embarrassed by the recent good news on traffic safety as the Nader groups are.

All of this just goes to prove the old saw that figures don't lie, but liars do figure. So, will this erode the credibility of the chicken-little claims of Nader, Claybrook, and other nanny-state liberals?


— Stephen Moore is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.


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