Americans are eager to find new ways to save money on gasoline. But we doubt they are ready to embrace a return to the 55-mph national speed limit.
Some in Congress, notably, Sen. John Warner, R-Va., say it's time to start the conversation about how a slower speed limit could save energy and spare drivers from crippling fuel costs. (Warner, by the way, is not running for re-election this fall.)
The senator hasn't specified what the new limit should be, but he notes that the nation saved 167,000 barrels of oil a day when the 55 mph speed limit was in effect. He added that he is likely to introduce legislation in the near future after the Energy Department determines the most fuel-efficient speed limit for the nation's highways.
Since the 55 mph speed limit was abolished, states have been permitted to set their own. The limit in most states, according to the American Automobile Association, is 65 or 70, while several states allow 75 along certain stretches of highway.
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The effort to revive a national speed limit is supported by the American Trucking Association, which represents 3.5 million truck drivers who have been hammered by rising diesel fuel costs. The association, however, has suggested a national limit of 65 mph.
Advocates of the "double nickel" speed limit offer undeniable statistical benefits derived from slowing down: It saves lives and money. And it might make us slightly less dependent on imported oil.
But Americans hated the 55 mph speed limit, and polls indicate they still do. Despite the advantages of going slower, drivers routinely defied the limit, and they don't want to see it return.
The truckers' support of a 65-mph speed limit is telling. They might want to save on the cost of fuel but they also want to be able to deliver their cargo in a timely manner.
Focusing solely on economy and safety in setting speed limits is not realistic. Other factors, such as time, must be figured into the equation.
As the truckers understand, time is money, and time spent on the highway is largely wasted money. While supporters of a 55 mph speed limit point to the millions of gallons of oil saved, they neglect to mention the millions of hours of productivity squandered by slowing down the national transportation grid.
In all likelihood, Warner's "most fuel-efficient speed limit" is considerably slower than 55 mph, probably somewhere nearer to 35 mph. And, if fuel efficiency were the only consideration, Congress should set the limit that low.
But everyone knows that won't happen. If we revive the national speed limit, it ought to be set at a level at which most drivers would willingly comply (give or take 5 mph).
Americans hate paying $4 for gas and appreciate the need for traffic safety. But we're still a nation in a hurry.