During the oil crises of the 1970s, Congress attempted to lower gasoline consumption by mandating a lowered speed limit for vehicles on all highways. But the efforts quickly evolved into a national campaign to increase traffic safety through lowered speed limits. Government data showed that thousands of lives could be saved per year by enforcing lower speed limits.
Millions of American motorists, however, were unimpressed. Widespread noncompliance resulted as many Americans concluded it was better to accept higher risk of death on highways—for themselves and for those around them—than to travel at reduced speeds. Government propaganda efforts such as the “55 Saves Lives” slogan proved ineffective, and the national speed limit was repealed in 1995.
The experience may be instructive today as many American policymakers insist that Americans must accept ongoing mass lockdowns and stay-at-home orders in the name of reducing deaths from COVID-19. Yet given that Americans have proven to be unwilling to reduce highway speeds—even in the face of the threat of traffic citations and deadly accidents—it is likely that they will soon be generally ignoring the lectures from “experts” and policymakers about the righteousness of destroying businesses and livelihoods in the name of safety.
A National Speed Limit
In 1974, Congress passed the National Maximum Speed Law (NMSL). The bill mandated that states lower maximum allowable highway speeds to 55 miles per hour in order to receive federal highway funds. Most states up to that time had speed limits ranging from 60 mph to 70 mph.
The law was passed in the hope that lower speeds would lead to lower gasoline consumption in the midst of the oil crisis at the time.
Yet when the oil crises ebbed and the price of oil crashed in the early 1980s, the national speed limit law remained.
By then, supporters of the law were claiming that a 55-mph speed limit was necessary as a safety measure and that it saved thousands of lives each year. One 1977 public service announcement claimed that “since 1974, 55 has been the single biggest factor in reducing highway deaths, by 36,000 people. One of them may be you.” A 1978 announcement concluded, “55 mph. It’s a law we can live with.” The narrator reminded viewers: “by 1975, highway deaths were down by over 9,000 since 1973.…all of us, by slowing down, helped save more than 9,000 people.”
The goal was laudable. Nowadays, more than 38,000 people die every year in crashes on US roadways. An additional 4.4 million are injured seriously enough to require medical attention, and auto accidents are the leading cause of death in the US for people aged 1–54.
Fatalities were even more common in the past. In the early days of mass automobile use—i.e., the 1920s—auto fatalities per million vehicle miles traveled (VMT) were many times higher than they are now. In 1925, for instance, fatalities totaled 16.9 per million VMT. Twenty fifteen’s rate was 1.2. In 1974, when the NMSL was passed, fatalities per million VMT were nearly triple what they are today, totaling 3.5.
On a per capita basis, fatalities were significantly higher in the past as well. In 1974, accident fatalities totaled 21.1 per 100,000 but were only 11.6 by 2015.
Source: National Center for Statistics and Analysis, 2017 Fatal Motor Vehicle Crashes: Overview (Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 2018). Fatalities per capita reached a postwar peak during the 1960s, although road fatalities have been generally declining for decades now.
Supporters of the “55 Saves Lives” campaign were happy to take credit for the decline in auto fatalities during the 1970s and 1980s. A 1984 report from the National Research Council claimed that when traffic fatalities fell by 9,100 from 1973 to 1974, the new speed limits could be credited with as many as 5,000 lives saved. A 1980 report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated that 41,951 lives were saved by lower speed limits from 1974 to 1979.
These claims likely overstate the role of speed reduction in declining fatalities. A downward trend was already in place before 1974, and the trend continued after the law’s repeal. Nevertheless, many researchers claimed—rather plausibly—that (all else being equal) lowered speeds resulted in fewer fatalities. As the World Health Organization (WHO) has concluded, “Studies suggest that a 1 km/h decrease in traveling speed would lead to a 2–3% reduction in road crashes.” Moreover, when auto accidents do occur, they’re more likely to be fatal at higher speeds. This all makes sense, of course. The faster the speed at which one is traveling, the less time one has to react an unexpected event up ahead. Impact at 80 miles per hour is more deadly than impact at 60 miles per hour.
The National Speed Limit Is Repealed
In spite of all this, however, political opposition to the NMSL grew and noncompliance was widespread.
After all, the safety measures were not without cost, and ordinary people knew it. For those who commuted long distances, time in the car could be significantly reduced by driving faster than 55 mph. Given that long commute times have been shown to impact the health and quality of life of commuters, speeding up one’s commute is no mere luxury. The effects of reduced speed limits on the cost of living could also be significant. The reduced speeds applied to all commercial drivers as well, increasing the cost of shipping goods while raising prices and reducing employment in services that involved driving a large number of highway miles. As with COVID-19-inspired regulations, regulations designed to achieve a smaller death toll on highways impose costs elsewhere. People make calculations based on these realities.
Not surprisingly, then, American motorists overwhelmingly traveled at illegal speeds in excess of 55 miles per hour. Many states with large rural areas—where speedy road travel was most economically valuable—found ways to minimize enforcement through measures such as reducing fines and not counting speeding tickets against driver’s license “points.”
By 1995, political opposition was sufficient to lead to the total repeal of the National Maximum Speed Law. At that point, most states went back to speed limit laws similar to what had existed before the adoption of the NMSL. Americans were happy to drive at higher—and potentially more deadly—speeds with lessened risk of speeding tickets. As repeal drew near, a pro-repeal 1995 column in the Los Angeles Times compared the national speed limit to national alcohol prohibition and called the speed limit mandate the “most-violated law in American history.”
Americans Accepted Higher Risk for Higher Speed
Through it all, in spite of repeated efforts by government officials and safety activists to harangue motorists into slowing down, American motorists showed they were willing to accept higher risk of death in order to travel more quickly on highways. This was especially true when it became that clear safety could be enhanced in other ways. These included better safety features on the cars themselves and constructing safer highways. Nonetheless, as fatality rates increased rapidly during the 1960s, Americans bought more cars and drove more miles.
But, overall, from the very beginning of the days of automobile driving, Americans had simply come to terms with the fact that driving fast is a fairly risky activity. But the fact remains that hundreds of thousands of Americans die in auto accidents every decade. Decade after decade.
It is likely that this will prove instructive in the age of COVID-19 lockdowns as Americans are told to abandon in-person activities such as schooling, put off important medical treatments, and close their businesses because all these things might save lives.
Americans weren’t willing to slow down to reduce traffic deaths. Will they be willing to live in isolation in the hope that they might help reduce COVID-19 deaths? Experience suggests many will not.
If We Treated Traffic Deaths Like We Do COVID Deaths
On the other hand, Americans might be more cautious about driving were government agencies and media to take an approach similar to what they have done with COVID-19 deaths.
Imagine a world where the media reports daily with above-the-fold headlines on total nationwide traffic deaths while framing those deaths as a problem to be solved through nationwide collective action and draconian government policies. Imagine if the New York Times every year published a huge front-page article along the lines of this week’s headline: “US Deaths Near 100,000, An Incalculable Loss.” This would mean an annual headline like “Traffic Deaths Near 40,000, an Incalculable Loss.” The Times would then go on to list the tens of thousands of people killed each year in auto accidents because irresponsible people refused to slow down or just stay home rather than burdening the highways with unsafe amounts of traffic. Dead mothers and children and grandfathers would be profiled and listed in large national publications illustrating the grievous burden of death imposed on daily life by unnecessary driving. Fearmongering clickbait websites like The Drudge Report would post daily articles about the gruesome details of heinous deaths that had occurred on our nation’s roads the week before.
It’s possible that in the face of all that, many Americans might think twice about making “nonessential” road trips or errands. After all, by staying out of your car and off the roads, “the life you save may be your own.”
Or, as is now happening, the daily drumbeat of death may recede into the background and people will simply accept that we must daily assess the amount of risk we are willing to accept as a result of our activities.
In the days of “55 Saves Lives” countless Americans were willing to flout the speed limit laws in order to take on greater risk of both traffic accidents and legal penalties. The sanctimonious hectoring from safety officials and activists didn’t stop them. Stay-at-home orders are likely to experience a similar fate.