NOVEMBER 29, 1995
President Clinton signed legislation that has abolished national highway speed limits. Tom Bearden reports from Denver.
TOM BEARDEN: In Nevada, they're already busily producing new signs for the highways, signs raising the speed limit to 75 miles an hour. Nine states are now planning to raise or eliminate their speed limits as of December 8th, the first day when the new limits will be legal. But highway safety groups bitterly oppose the bill and protested in front of the White House yesterday as the President signed it. They claim that raising the speed limit will result in more fatalities. A National Academy of Science's study estimates that between two and four thousand lives are saved by lower speed limits. Opponents question the validity of those kinds of numbers, saying other factors are involved. The national speed limit was originally intended to save fuel, not lives. In the early 70's, an Arab oil embargo created a serious gasoline shortage in the United States. In 1973, the 55 mile an hour speed limit was signed into law by President Richard Nixon, and later endorsed by President Carter, who touted improved safety, as well as fuel economy.
PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: It's obvious that the fuel savings can be enormous. I think maybe eight or nine million gallons per day can be saved. And since 1973, we've been saving, I think, eight or nine thousand lives per year.
TOM BEARDEN: But the speed limit was enormously unpopular in the West, where drivers were used to high speeds in the wide open spaces. In fact, nearly all of the states planning to raise the limits immediately are Western states.
TOM BEARDEN: Well, the bill may be signed, but the debate is certainly far from over. Joining us to discuss this are the Speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives, Chuck Berry, who supports higher speed limits, and Judith Lee Stone, who is the president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, who opposes them. Mrs. Stone is in our Washington studio. Mr. Speaker, the Colorado legislature is going to look at this issue next month. What's going to happen?
CHUCK BERRY, House Speaker, Colorado: Well, I think something will pass. We're ready to give this to our state department of transportation, let them go out and look at all the highways in Colorado. Many of these highways were designed in the 60's and some in the 50's to be driven at the 70 mile an hour speed limit. We're not automatically going to raise the speed limit on all roads to 75, but we're going to look at what they're properly designed for, what the safest condition is. We can have safe highway travel in Colorado with higher limits in some areas.
TOM BEARDEN: Ms. Stone, what do you think will happen in Colorado if it does raise the speed limits?
JUDITH LEE STONE, Highway Safety Advocate: Well, I hope that there aren't any more deaths and injuries, but I do have to say that the designed speed that Mr. Berry is talking about was something that was meant to be under ideal conditions, which means that nothing else can be going on out there, like bad weather and disruptions on the road, so really that figure of 70 miles an hour that the roads were designed to do is really not a very helpful figure.
TOM BEARDEN: You say you hope it won't increase fatalities. Is there evidence to believe that it will?
MS. STONE: Well, we think it probably will because in 1987, when the states raised their speed limits to 65 on the real interest highways, there was a 30 percent increase nationwide in fatalities. That's a huge increase. We are assuming and we think the data shows that the same kind of thing will happen under this scenario.
TOM BEARDEN: Mr. Berry, is she right, are we going to see more people dying on Colorado highways?
MR. BERRY: Well, I don't think so. Our statistics show that when that speed limit went to 65 in 1987, that the traffic fatalities in Colorado did not increase in any significant way. Certainly, drivers have to in our state, where there's a lot of snow and mountain passes, have to moderate their speed based on conditions. They're not always going to drive. I mean, people--drivers are smarter than I think we sometimes give them credit for.
TOM BEARDEN: He says the fatality rate in Colorado went down. How does that jive with the national figures?
MS. STONE: Well, I think that the fatality rate is one thing. The number of fatalities is another, and that means that when an individual life is lost, that gets factored in to an overall rate. But that's a very difficult figure to talk about when you're talking about one person's life being lost. I don't know how many lives were lost in Colorado overall during that period of time. But I do know that when speeds go up, people tend to drive much faster than the speed limit, and the percentage of people exceeding the higher limit goes way up, and that inevitably leads to more death and injury.
TOM BEARDEN: Mr. Speaker, what about that issue of single lives lost, is that something that should be a factor in considering this, the value of a single human life?
MR. BERRY: Well, of course, we always need to look at that, but balance all considerations together. I think a lot of people exceed the speed limit now because it's artificially low. These highways were not designed, the modern cars were not designed to travel 55 on a flat surface, multiple-lane highway across the wide open spaces. And yet, that's what they're supposed to drive because of the national speed limit, so of course, people exceed it if they can get away with it. Some have called that a speed limit, a benchmark of opportunity. But I think if the speed limits are more realistic and we have looked at what the road will take and everything, I think you'll actually see more compliance with that, that speed limit, and the reason people are driving fast now is because they just don't think it's realistic, and they can get away with it.
TOM BEARDEN: Ms. Stone, is that an issue in your mind, that the speed limits aren't realistic, people are going to violate them anyway?
MS. STONE: Well, I think the fact or the statement that people will comply just because it's the right thing to do is kind of wishful thinking. We haven't seen that happening in the past on other roads. The speeds have been going up. Yes, it is true that people don't comply with the 55 mile an hour speed limit, but that's really no reason to raise the limit, because when you start going 70 and 75, as an average speed on certain roads, it makes it much more difficult to control the vehicle, much more difficult to stop. We have truck out there going at much faster speeds and barreling down on the rear of cars, and people are very nervous about that. I think it becomes a very difficult enforcement issue for the police the higher the speeds are, and there are a lot of single vehicle crashes that happen when there are no cars around at all. People go off the side of the road, they fall asleep, they roll over. Many of the crashes that happen are rollover crashes, so we expect that some of those will increase as well.
TOM BEARDEN: What about the argument that people have made in support of higher speed limits, that highway engineers in Colorado are much better qualified, for example, to determine what a good speed limit is for their terrain than somebody in Washington?
MR. BERRY: I think that's absolutely right. Most of these decisions should be made at a state level. The terrain is very different here in Colorado than it is on the East Coast. I don't want to be telling the people in Pennsylvania how fast they ought to drive. When I go back there, I'll abide by their speed limits, but I really think we in Colorado can do this without the heavy hand of government in Washington tell us what's best for us. Again, I don't think we give drivers enough credit for using sense and driving in a safe and prudent fashion. Sure, there are always some bad drivers out there, and frankly, I think that we're going to have crashes, regardless of what the speed limit is because there are irresponsible drivers, but let's give most people the benefit of the doubt. Let these limits be set on a state level based on what we think is, is the safe speed to travel.
TOM BEARDEN: Ms. Stone, that sort of speaks to the western issue. You mentioned trucks barreling up on people on the highways. In the wide open spaces in Texas and Oklahoma and Colorado and other places, that doesn't happen very often because there aren't many cars on the road, and that does speak to the issue of what's a reasonable speed limit for the terrain. Why is that better set in Washington or set nationally than it is locally?
MS. STONE: Well, you can repeal the national speed limit but you can't repeal the law of physics. The fact of the matter is when you're involved in a motor vehicle crash, the dynamics of that crash are very severe, and the higher the speed that you are going, the more severe the crash is going to be. It's just as simple as that. You can't control each individual situation obviously, and there are a lot of crashes that happen not because it's the fault of the driver but just circumstances.
TOM BEARDEN: Mr. Speaker, the argument has been made, and you sort of touched on it earlier, that people are not obeying the law, therefore, we ought to change it. But if you follow that same rationale, people take drugs. Should we repeal our laws on drugs?
MR. BERRY: Of course not, because those are realistic laws. You suffer a loss if you get hooked on drugs, and you can't be a productive member of society. The 55 mile an hour speed limit was instituted because of an international oil embargo situation, so we could save fuel. We didn't have enough gasoline coming into this country. It had nothing to do with safety, as the earlier statement was made. I can recall, because I was a college student at the time, that very shortly before that people were traveling at 70 miles an hour on all the highways out here, and you know, it was relatively safe travel. I mean, I don't--I don't recall any dramatic change myself as a driver occurring when we had that 55 reduction, except there was a lot of frustrated people. They were angry. I mean, in the West, time is money, and where you're spending an enormous amount of time on a highway at an artificially low speed limit, people are going to do one of two things. They're either going to--the anger is going to build up, or they're going to figure out a way to drive what the reasonable and prudent speed is, which is going to be higher than 55 in many situations.
TOM BEARDEN: One provision in this new bill that hasn't been talked about much is the helmet law, lifting requirements that states have helmet laws. What effect is that going to have on Colorado, assuming that this legislation passes such a lifting?
MR. BERRY: Well, we don't have a helmet law now, and we've been paying a penalty in terms of our federal highway dollars because we don't have a helmet law, so that's actually going to help us to be able to use those dollars directly on the highways.
TOM BEARDEN: Ms. Stone, do you think the same corollary is going to happen when Colorado institutes the law it already has in effect right now, that more people will be killed?
MS. STONE: Oh, Colorado doesn't have a helmet law, and we've been trying to get one passed. I certainly think that now that we're not going to have a speed limit that's reasonable in Colorado, if that happens, I think you should pass a helmet law. The fact of the matter is, is that the federal law on helmets really didn't sanction the states, it didn't take money away from the states. It took money from one pot of money in the state and put it over into the highway safety pot because that was where it was needed. That was the rationale. So really the states didn't lose a penny over this law. And I think that what's going to happen as the result of the repeal of this federal program is that a number of states where we've been trying to get helmet laws passed, such as in Colorado, are probably not going to do that. I also think that we'll see some repeal efforts in states like Colorado and maybe Maryland and some others that have recently passed laws. I think this is a travesty. Head injury's a very expensive proposition in this country, and helmet laws are a very effective solution to that problem.
TOM BEARDEN: Montana is about to remove all speed limits as far as the daytime travel is concerned. What's your thought on that?
MR. BERRY: That goes a little too far for me. I think there need to be some indicators out there and basically I think as a former criminal prosecutor in the county courts, I think it would probably be pretty difficult to prove that somebody wasn't traveling a safe and prudent speed. When you've got the presumption of a speed limit, I think it assists in that. And there are still going to be some people out there who are driving eighty, ninety miles an hour that it's just not going to be safe, and there ought to be an enforcement mechanism for that. So I'm hesitant to go the full measure and just say there won't be any speed limits.
TOM BEARDEN: Ms. Stone, do you agree?
MS. STONE: Well, I'm very happy to hear you say that. I would like you to know some information, if you don't already, which is that AAA did--the American Automobile Association did a survey that showed that over 80 percent of their, their folks thought that the speed limit shouldn't be any higher than 65. My organization, Advocates, did a survey as well earlier this year and asked the same question and got some similar numbers in the high sixties of people who didn't think we should go above sixty-five. So we certainly think that should be something that everybody should look at, that there's no reason why you have to go back to the levels that you were before 1974.
TOM BEARDEN: We have to leave it there. Thank you both for joining us.