In 1974, “Tricky Dick” Nixon (a moniker I’d like to think came about as a result of either an old dorm room incident or standing a tad too close to a bonfire) and his merry band of glue-sniffing authoritarians decided it would be a great idea if everyone (except them) gave up their petrol-powered vehicles and just traveled everywhere on adult tricycles. Bicycles being too dangerous, the third wheel was mandated that it be there for the sake of the children…somehow. But let’s not get bogged down with details. Congress surely didn’t.
Offering the same brand of hookers and blow legislation that the United States purveyed in the 1970’s, recently the EU along with the UK governments have decided that the only appropriate action to take at this time – again for the sake of the children – is to not merely have national speed limits, but rather individual electronic speed limiters on cars. So benevolent is the idea of the individual speed limiter that it is called an “Intelligent Speed Assistant.” Wow, what a great idea! I like intelligence, speed and assistance! Isn’t that what good governments are for, providing all the things I like and taking away everything I don’t? I feel special.
I won’t get into detail about this most recent European foolishness, as I have written extensively on this topic in my 3 part series, “Pasty Bureaucrats Suck Remaining Joy Out Of Motoring In Europe” which can be found HERE, HERE, and HERE.But I thought it would be fun to look at how successful “the war on speed” was right here at home in the good ol’ USA between the years of 1974 and 1995.
What is a balding…saggy, and paunch-growing politician to do after imagining new ways to keep themselves in power and their buddies in the money?
First, I’d like to make an analogy. When pharmaceutical companies produce a drug that either doesn’t work or have drug that the patent that is about to expire on, what do they do? They figure out how the unintended consequences of that drug, known in the trade as a “side effect” can be monetized. In other words they pivot to save face (and make money). Politicians do that all the time too.
For example, what is a balding, humorless, pale, saggy, and paunch-growing politician who lies for a living and who is the ultimate welfare recipient to do after imagining new ways to keep themselves in power and their buddies in the money? They take a perfectly good can of hairspray which is no longer effective for its intended purpose and huff the whole thing in one go. That’s the drug pivot I was speaking of. Out of the intense but short lived high that results, springs all of the incomprehensible legislation nobody reads before voting on, like the 55 mph national speed limit.
So let’s peer into the peephole of history and look at the ostensible reason for the 55 mph speed limit and the pivot which kept this nonsensical and arbitrary limitation on the law books for two decades.
Called the “Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act”, this piece of legislation was like the drug that didn’t work, despite being purported to save on fuel, it required it’s own pivot to save face and make money. As it turns out, in 1998 (25 years after the enactment of this foolishness, and 3 years after it was repealed), the Transportation Research Board calculated that the federal mandate gave a measly 0.2 – 1.0% improvement in fuel economy.
But it was pretty obvious if anyone had checked their fuel economy on an ongoing basis. A process which my father always went through by keeping a small notepad in the glove compartment which tallied milage and the number of gallons of fuel purchased at each fill up. Some simple math yielded mpg. You ain’t foolin’ Dad.
Naturally, nobody in congress cared to mention that so long as the Aqua Net supply held out and all the state and local jurisdictions were making a killing in speed-related fines. Nobody had thought to bother with figuring this out before the Act was passed. That would have distracted our fearless leaders from the jacuzzis full of distilled spirits and high-priced prostitutes, and full length mirrors generously lined with uh, a powdery like substance.
Everyone knew it was as ridiculous a scam as the red light cameras of today, thus few (approximately 17% based on a study in New York) actually obeyed the speed regulation. Yet the states’ coffers kept being filled on the backs of the remaining 83% of drivers who could do the rudimentary math that exposed the claims of this legislation as the sizable pile of poo that it was.
If one was to look at the big picture, I’d suspect that one would see that any lives spared as a result of this legislation paled in comparison to the number of fatal incidents resulting from falling asleep at the wheel due to the narcolepsy-inducing rate of speed.
As a result everybody in North Dakota died on the roads in 1973 which is why the state is still so sparsely populated to this day.
Consider the drive across the western states. When we ponder North Dakota for instance, between 1974 and 1995 one could get onto I-94 westbound in Fargo, set the cruise control at 55 mph (if it the car had been so optioned) and go take a nap in the back seat for the 200-mile, 3 3/4 hour ride to Bismarck. Those with sufficient time and bladder control to enjoy the nap would be awakened at just the right time by the necessity of sweet relief on arrival.
So let’s say you arrived in one piece at your destination in Bismarck, relieved, rested and ready to luncheon. Even then, you’d still only be a little more than halfway across the state. However the fatal dangers came if during the back seat siesta, windage and wheel alignment weren’t taken into account, which few did, and one met their maker out of nothing more than sheer boredom. As a result everybody in North Dakota died on the roads in 1973 which is why the state is still so sparsely populated to this day.
Another point to consider is the difficulty in getting seafood or any sort of produce resembling its original condition to such a location. The length of time it took to get these goods to such destinations was long which increased spoilage. The number of miles truckers who got paid by the mile was low per unit of time, which was a disincentive.
Any advantage in fuel consumption of diesel trucks at the lowered speeds made deliveries slower and lean toward the impractical and expensive for towns way out in the middle of nowhere. This fact of logistics exacerbated by the “Conservation Act” probably caused even more deaths over time due to the effects of the strictly meat-and-grain diets of the remaining inhabitants. Thanks Uncle Sam.
OK, here’s a simple equation. Yes, math again. Please bear with me. For simplicity’s sake, let’s figure that in 1975 the average car had a 20 gallon fuel tank and that the average mpg was 13. That would allow for a range of 260 miles. If we split the “performance improvement” difference and call it a 0.6% gain in fuel economy by driving the national speed limit, you could possibly gain a whopping 1.5 miles per tankful.
This, you could easily quadruple by not driving like an idiot and keeping your tires properly inflated, amongst other maintenance items. Or not doing those things can just as easily undermine the supposed reason for the speed limit. But to put it into perspective, you’d have to drive almost 45,000 miles or 3 years (at an average of 15,000 miles per year) to score yourself a bonus tank of fuel.
You’d have to drive almost 45,000 miles or 3 years (at an average of 15,000 miles per year) to score yourself a bonus tank of fuel.
Recall that 100,000 miles on a car was a lot in those days, so under this plan, if you were a highway driver, you could expect about 2 “free” tankfuls of gas over the life of the car. Yep, that was the brilliant “emergency” plan. Brought to you by the same gang who annually approves the budgets for $1,280 coffee mugs and $10,000 airplane toilet seat covers.
So what is a politician to do between bong hits when the public begins to pick up their collective pitchforks as it realizes that it had been hoodwinked into accepting this inability to outrun a little red wagon?
Yep, from out of the midst of the smoke-filled congressional opium den could be heard, “Dude…it’s for the children, man.” Yep, that’s right it’s for your own safety. That imposed safety was marketed with the slogan, “Stay alive. Drive 55.” yet no matter what metric we look at there’s very little evidence to support that decreasing the speed limit to 55 prevented any more deaths than the trend was pointing toward anyway.
For example, let’s use the metric of Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT). The annual decrease in the number of traffic fatalities was nearly relentless beginning with 24.09 deaths per 100 million VMT in 1921, down to 4.12 in 1973; which was the year before the legislation took effect.
From 1974, when the legislation was enacted the figures were 3.53 deaths per 100 million VMT, there was a decrease to 1.73 in 1995 when the law was repealed. So after repeal the number of deaths skyrocketed, right! Actually, they did not, they continued in the downward trajectory to the level they are today which is 1.16 deaths per 100 million VMT. Ooopsie.
How about raw numbers then? Surely that should tell us a different story, right? Let’s look at the numbers provided by those who have a vested interest in counting accurately: The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Highway Loss Data Institute.
Today’s number of crash-related deaths is still significantly less than the 1975 figures by a decent margin, and notably fewer than the 1995 statistics.
According to their data, in 1975, the first full year of the measure, there were 39,161 crashes which caused 44,525 deaths. Five years later in 1980, the number had reached 45,284 crashes yielding 51,091 fatalities. This steady and significant increase in crash-related deaths served as a piece of evidence supporting the pile of poo hypothesis postulated by the awake portion of our citizenry.
Interestingly 1995 when the law was finally repealed, the number of crashes and deaths were 37,241 and 41,817 respectively. While this drop indicated a kind of progress, it should be noted that since the law was repealed there was a drop all the way down to 29,867 crashes and 32,479 deaths in 2011, with a bounce up to 34,247 crashes and 37,133 deaths in 2017.
Today’s number of crash-related deaths is still significantly less than the 1975 figures by a decent margin, and notably fewer than the 1995 statistics. This is despite the fact that there are 2.5x the number of cars on the road today, about 100,000,000 more people in the country, and that the vast majority of the states have a speed limit of 70 or higher.
But the war on speed was a success right? Well it depends on how one defines success. If success means that the number of crashes and deaths per year increased for each of the 6 years following its enactment, then yes, the law was very successful. If one defines success as having an effect on fuel efficiency smaller than the margin of error in calculating that efficiency, then again, yes the program was very very successful. And if by “success” one means that it generated a lot of revenue, than yes, most certainly the legislation was extremely successful.
By any other measure however, we can consider that legal folly an abject failure. Sadly, it wasn’t just the American people who fell asleep at the wheel as they crept slowly down the highway, primarily it was the elected leadership.