Friday, August 11, 2006

Maybe We Should Lower the Speed Limit

I'm back in my old home state, Nebraska, right now. As I was driving on the central expressway corridor, Interestate 80--commonly called "I-80" by locals, not "The 80" as locals might say in southern California--I was thinking about how much gas people (including me) were wasting driving the 75-MPH which is the posted speed limit. Now, estimates vary, but it seems that most auto efficiency websites claim that fuel efficiency for most cars decreases above 55 or 60 MPH, and especially above 65 MPH.

Back when I was growing up, I remember that speed limits were raised from 65 to 75 MPH. Even though the change was popular, I remember being opposed at the time on the basis of safety considerations. To the best of my knowledge, such safety concerns are still valid: it is not so much that people have more accidents, although perhaps they do, but the higher speed inevitably makes such accidents more deadly. But now I wonder if it may be the high gas prices--and, more fundamentally, worries about dwindling oil supplies and global warming--might lead us to reconsider our love affair with high speed limits in America.

I experimented a little yesterday, driving between 60 and 70 MPH whenever possible, but I found that I often had to increase my speed temporarily to 75 in order to avoid creating a traffic bottleneck. Much as I believe in fuel efficiency, I am not willing to make a total pest out of myself on the road, nor am I willing to risk being rear-ended by some extra large pick-up truck or SUV. So that makes me wonder if it is time to broach the taboo topic of LOWERING speed limits. Now, I know that flies in the face of the American entitlement for high consumption and speed...but I still think maybe this time of high and rising gas prices might be a good time to raise the issue.

For its part, the government's own fuel efficiency website has a nice graph showing the huge fuel wastage that usually occurs as you approach 75 MPH. (If you've ever paid attention when going really fast on expressways, you must have noticed this too--I couldn't fail to notice when I had to refill my gas tank after 350 as opposed to 450 miles when driving on high-speed interestates!) However, I do find it somewhat comical that the website places this information under the heading "Observe the Speed Limit." They must not have been to Nebraska (or Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Utah, or Wyoming--and those are only the ones with 75 MPH) lately. If one drove the speed limit in these states, one would be quite on the far right edge of that disastrously plunging graph. Now I realize that many of these states have long, "boring" expanses of open highway, but will it really kill us all to get where we are going a little bit later? Especially considering that we could save a lot of money on gas by slowing down a bit? I suggest that we consider lowering our speed limits to 65 MPH to save energy, money, and lives.


Rob said...

Lowering the speed limit is a relatively painless and practical measure that America is incapable of these days. We'll complain about gas prices but won't sacrafice a few miles off our speed limit.

Ambivalent_Maybe said...

I was thinking about speed limits lately and wondering if the many changes in car technology since the 1970s might have changed the most efficient speed. It would not be surprising if the peak at 55mph was determined many years ago, and then enshrined as the standard, without follow-up tests on newer vehicles.

The lowering of limits to 55 during the Carter administration was probably one of the most unpopular things that unpopular president did. I'm definitely not a speed demon, but out West 55 mph seems too slow even for me. 65, however, seems like a reasonable limit.

Alternatively, if Americans cannot bring themselves to drive at the lower speed limits, perhaps engines could be redesigned to reach their peak performance at higher speeds? I don't know enough physics or mechanics to say if this would be feasible, but I feel it's my duty as an American to always be looking for technological fixes to our social problems.