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

Culture | January 2, 2021

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

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.

Double Nickels On The Dime

source: future travel

On January 2, 1974, President Nixon signed legislation that required the states to set their max speed limits on divided highways of four lanes or more - which was basically most of the Interstate - to 55 mph within 60 days. If states wanted they could set their speed limits lower than 55, but anything more was a no go.

If states failed to comply with the new rule they would be prohibited from receiving funds from the Department of Transportation. Nixon hoped that the change would save 200,000 barrels of fuel a day, but even other Republican leaders didn't think that Nixon's plan was all that great. Senator Bob Dole tried to raise the speed limit to 60 mph in May of '74, but that plan failed to gain traction and the National Speed Limit was set at the low speed of 55 mph for the next decade.

Life Is A Highway, Albeit A Slow One

source: hero magazine

When Nixon enacted the National Speed Limit he was actually late to the party in many states. 12 states were already at a maximum speed limit of 55 mph, and nine states were at a limit of 50 mph. Realistically, Nixon's plan wasn't going to make much of a change to how much gas Americans were purchasing. If a good chunk of the country was already driving at a snail's pace down the highway then what could a national law really change?

That being said, some states had to hit the brakes in a major way. States like Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio had to slow down a whole 20 mph in 1974, while Oregon, Tennessee, and South Dakota had to slow down an entire 25 mph. None of these sates were happy about the change, and while many state governments tried to fight the change they all failed to make any significant headway with their speed problems.

Life In The Slow Lane

source: best ride

States like Wyoming, which had a 75 mph speed limit when Nixon signed the National Speed Limit legislation, weren't enthused about telling people to slow down while passing through their state, particularly with its desolate stretches where motorists were few and far between, so the "safety" argument was less convincing. Missouri held out from lowering their speed limit for as long as they could, and while Montana (another 75 mph state) lowered their speed limit to 55, they only fined speeders a whopping $5 for tearing across the highway with their pedal to the metal, or as they called it "an unnecessary waste of a natural resource."

It wasn't just states that didn't want to lower their speed limits, regular Americans were aghast at moving across the country at a crawl. Drivers were going to the speeds they wanted, just like now, it's just that for more than a decade after 1974 they faced seriously steep tickets for moving violations.

'I Can't Drive 55'

source: pinterest

Aside from the desire to save on energy, the proponents of keeping the speed limit at 55 mph noted that it was a safer speed than 60, 70, or even 75 mph, although statistics don't really show much of a change in automobile deaths in the years when 55 mph was the law. While slower cars does mean that there are less high speed accidents, auto safety improvements and seatbelt regulation helped keep the auto mortality rate down.

The Cato Institute studied the effects of a 55 mph speed limit and found that after a few months of the legislation the country's safety record was actually worse than had it had been before. Although, auto accidents shook out to a median number by 1978.

Once the oil crisis came to an end, the U.S. government kept the 55 mph speed limit by touting safety numbers. The government even went so far as to have car companies print speedometers with an accentuation on the number 55.

The government also ran a publicity campaign with the rhyming slogan "55 Saves Lives." Rocker Sammy Hagar (who would later join Van Halen) countered with his own statement: the 1984 single "I Can't Drive 55." Hagar wrote the song about a drive from Albany to Lake Placid, NY, after a long trip back to the states from Africa:

I was in a rent-a-car that wouldn't go much faster than 55 miles an hour. ... It took two and a half hours to drive [to Lake Placid] from Albany. And I was driving from Albany, New York at 2:00 in the morning, burnt from all the travel. Cop stopped me for doing 62 on a four lane road when there was no one else in sight. Then the guy gave me a ticket. I was doing 62. And he said, 'We give tickets around here for over-60.' and I said, 'I can't drive 55.' I grabbed a paper and a pen, and I swear the guy was writing the ticket and I was writing the lyrics. I got to Lake Placid, I had a guitar set-up there. And I wrote that song there on the spot. Burnt.

Fast Car(s)

source: auburnpub

In 1987, Congress decided to allow the drivers of the United States to live a little and drive at speeds up to 65 mph on rural Interstate highways. By 1988, 40 states raised their speed limits to 65, and in 1991 the speed limit was made permanent by president George H.W. Bush. That year, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act didn't just raise the speed limit 15 mph, it removed Federal sanctions against states who didn't comply with the 55 mph rule.

Four years later, the National Highway System Designation Act of 1995 returned all speed limit decisions to the states by the end of the year. Most states went back to their original speed limits, and Montana actually went back to not having a numerical speed limit at all. The days of getting somewhere on time (or maybe a little early) were back.

Tags: 1970s News | 55 MPH Speed Limit | Gas Shortage | Richard Nixon

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.