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

By | December 31, 2020

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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.

Oil And Gasoline

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source: word press

Following World War II, America enjoyed inexpensive oil from the Middle East until the Arab-Israeli conflict in 1973 completely disrupted the West's petrol hookup. In 1973, the Arab nations of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) took issue with the West's support of Israel, so they completely stopped oil shipments to the United States, Japan and Western Europe. They then cranked oil prices up four times to what they were previously.

This decision didn't just strangle American consumers, it threw the entire world for a loop. The economies of America and Europe took a nose dive, and there was a major gas shortage. No amount of rationing could turn the tides on the energy crisis, and neither could Henry Kissinger's negotiation of a military disengagement between Syria and Israel.

President Nixon and his cabinet knew that there was no way to put the toothpaste back in the tube with OPEC, but he hoped by lowering the national speed limit the government could save hundreds of thousands of barrels of fuel a day.