Did '55' Save Lives? How The National Speed Limit Failed

By Jacob Shelton
The now anachronistic poster for 'The Cannonball Run' showed the road racers mocking the 55 mph speed limit. Source: originalfilmart.com

In 1974, President Richard Nixon put a national speed limit of 55 miles per hour (mph) on every road in the United States, including interstate highways, in hopes that the restriction would serve the dual purpose of saving lives and saving fuel. Understandably, people hated it. It's hard to comprehend such a slow, country-wide speed limit today. Not only is it a hazardously slow highway speed, but how can anyone expect to travel cross country at such a snail's pace?

People mostly disregarded the National Maximum Speed Limit -- sure, the "limit" was 55 mph, but the word on the street was that you could drive up to 64 mph (or some other arbitrary number, depending on your state's Monopoly-style house rules) without fear of getting pulled over. Even though politicians attempted to raise the limit as the years went on this law stayed on the books until 1987 when the U.S. Senate voted to allow states to increase speeds on rural interstates to 65 mph. The drama surrounding the National Speed Limit and its failure is the story of a group of people deciding what's right for everyone and failing miserably.