f/k/a archives . . . real opinions & real haiku

July 4, 2008

speed limit politics (Obama disappoints)

Filed under: viewpoint — David Giacalone @ 12:54 pm

Sen. John Warner (R-VA) . . . . . . . . . . .

. . . . . . . . . . . . . Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL)

If you’ve read our Efficient Driving Pledge back in April, you know the f/k/a Gang is celebrating the news that influential Republican Senator John Warner of Virginia “suggested Thursday that Congress might want to consider reimposing a national speed limit to save gasoline and possibly ease fuel prices.” See “Senator asks if nation’s drivers should slow down” (Washington Post/AP, July 4, 2008) The AP story continues:

“Sen. John Warner, R-Va., asked Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman to look into what speed limit would provide optimum gasoline efficiency given current technology. He said he wants to know if the administration might support efforts in Congress to require a lower speed limit.”

“. . . ‘The department’s Web site says that fuel efficiency decreases rapidly when traveling faster than 60 mph. Every additional 5 mph over that threshold is estimated to cost motorists “essentially an additional 30 cents per gallon in fuel costs,’ Warner said in his letter, citing the DOE data.”

55 limit n On the other hand/thumb, if you’re a regular reader here, you must know that we are bemoaning and regretting the reaction of “our candidate” Barack Obama to Sen. Warner’s suggestion. As reported in the Detroit Free Press, “Speed limit idea said to save gas” (July 3, 2008):

“Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama’s spokesman said the Democrat would leave setting speed limits to the states and focus instead on renewable energy and improved efficiency.”

Barack took the correct and courageous stand against the summer gas-tax holiday during the Democratic primaries (see our prior post). But, his alleged cop-out on speed limits has left me with whiplash, wondering how many more of Sen. Obama’s principles will be sacrificed in his bid to win “blue collar” voters. Speed limits are no more an issue to be left for the states to decide than the Iraq war was an issue solely for federal politicians back when Barack was a State Senator speaking out on the war.

Michigan state Rep. Aldo Vagnozzi of Farmington Hills, recognizes the national scope of the problem. According to yesterday’s Free Press, he “introduced a resolution calling on Congress to reinstitute the national 55-m.p.h. speed limit implemented during the 1970s oil crisis.” At his website, Vagnozzi argues that:

“At a time when Michigan residents are stretching their dollars as far as they can to make ends meet, skyrocketing gas prices are only making matters worse,” Vagnozzi said. “By simply lowering the speed limit and slowing down on the road, we can increase fuel efficiency, decrease our gas consumption and provide consumers some relief at the pump.”

Most of today’s vehicles reach optimum fuel efficiency between 45 mph and 55 mph. For every mile-per-hour faster than 55 that a vehicle travels, fuel efficiency drops by about 1 percent. Efficiency drops off at a faster rate above 65 mph.

Lowering the national speed limit to 55 mph would:

* Save consumers money at the pump by increasing fuel efficiency, requiring them to buy less gas;
* Save lives by reducing the incidence and severity of traffic accidents;
* Reduce our dependence on foreign oil by reducing demand;
* Cut vehicle emissions by 10 percent.

Our fuel-savings post in April reiterated the lament:

“I hate to be cynical, but I don’t think there’s any chance that the American public — or their courageous leaders — will go along with lowering speed limits to 55 mph in order to save billions of gallons of oil a year.” This is another time when I would love to see one of my predictions proven wrong.

Perhaps leaders like Warner and Vagnozzi will indeed prove me wrong. But, they will need lots of support from other legislators and government officials to make fuel-efficient speed limits a reality. You still have time, Barack, to explain what your spokesperson really meant.

In April we opined: If politicians and the public were serious about achieving fuel economy — in order to save money and save Earth from greenhouse gases — they would start enforcing our speed limit laws and rollback the highway speed limit to 55 mph.

We continue to believe that the most effective, and surely the quickest, way to reduce our nation’s fuel consumption is to enforce the laws already on the books. For those who rather not click through, here are excerpts from our discussion on that topic:

A 2005 survey by the Governors Highway Safety Association confirmed what we already knew: almost every state allows drivers to regularly and significantly exceed the speed limit before they are stopped — and “Nearly all respondents reported a public perception that there exists a cushion above a posted speed limit in which officers will not cite offenders.

The range most often reported was 5-10 miles per hour above the posted limit. “ NewsMax.com, AP, “Survey: Most States Allow Speed Cushion,” June 13, 2005; Survey Executive Summary). One news report noted:

“Authorities patrolling U.S. highways tend to give motorists a cushion of up to 10 miles per hour above the speed limit before pulling them over, says a survey by a group of state traffic safety officials. The group found that 42 states allow drivers to regularly exceed the speed limit before they are stopped. [Editor’s Note: only 47 states responded to this survey; at least one of the non-responders — New York — clearly also has the speed cushion.]

. . . “Law enforcement needs to be given the political will to enforce speed limits and the public must get the message that speeding will not be tolerated,” said [Jim Champagne, chairman of the Governors Highway Safety Association].

“[And, yes, speed both costs and kills:] A study released in 1999 by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimated an increase in deaths on interstates and freeways of about 15 percent in the 24 states that had raised their speed limit in late 1995 and 1996.”


A pledge from our political leaders to achieve energy independence from foreign oil barons and monarchs (despite the personal sacrifice required of all Americans) would be particularly appropriate today, July 4th. I’m listening, Sen. Obama — please renew my faith in your idealism and commitment to do (and say) the right thing. Join with Sen. Warner and let us see some of your across-the-aisle cooperation and leadership.

more resources (May 3, 2008): For a lot of information and inspiration (and some great bumper stickers) zoom over to iDrive55.org – the Drive 55 Conservation Project.

By the way: With the help of the Cruise Control lever, I kept my promise to abide by the 65-mpg speed limit on the New York State Thruway last week, while traveling over 700 miles to and from the Chautauqua Institution. Yes, I was passed a lot. More important, I achieved my best fuel efficiency ever. In fact, for a 200-mile all-Thruway segment of the return trip, my 2000 Mazda Protege, which was rated by the government at 30 mpg for highway travel, averaged over 35 miles per gallon. [And, yes, I would be happy to drive 55, if that becomes the law of the land or of our state.]

update (July 21, 2008): The lead editorial in today’s Schenectady Daily Gazette is headlined: “Large gas discounts available for motorists’ taking.” It points out the instant large “discounts” drivers can achieve merely by slowing down, and opines: “Unfortunately, even with gas selling at over $4 per gallon, they won’t do it; and few politicians have been willing to stick their necks out and say the obvious: that government should reduce the national speed limit, the way it did when there were gas shortages and skyrocketing prices in the 1970s, and enforce it.”


  1. David,

    Thanks for posting about this issue again. In fact, it was one of your prior posts (can’t remember which) that reminded me to drive slower to achieve more fuel-efficiency.

    I have now trained myself to drive between 60 and 67 miles per hour and I have already seen a resultant increase in gas mileage. Whenever I catch myself going faster, it really is no problem for me to slow down and move to another lane.

    I’ve seen my “combined” mileage go from around 24 to around 26mpg.

    I’m trying to find some studies or reports on how efficient it really is to slow down and drive in the 60-65 range.

    It really infuriates me when I see cars speeding by at 80mph. I’m essentially paying for them to speed.

    Comment by Gideon — July 4, 2008 @ 1:03 pm

  2. Hi, Gideon, Thanks for taking the time to Comment — and for checking out this site so often. (Sloth severely limits my own web surfing, even though I know I’m missing a lot by not getting to your weblog.)

    It’s great to know you’ve been slowing down and getting results. I’m not sure where to look for more specific information, beyond the links in my prior post, especially all those at HowStuffWorks.

    P.S. And thanks for pointing to f/k/a’s piece this week on Driving While Phoning.

    Comment by David Giacalone — July 4, 2008 @ 1:55 pm

  3. At the risk of stating the obvious, Sen. Warner is not running for anything; this is his last term (tho in fairness & admiration, he’s never really let “what people think” get to him much).

    Sen. Obama, otoh…not only is he running for President, he’s also spending the day in Montana! Driving 55 would be the Willie Horton of the Big Sky State.

    Comment by Anne — July 4, 2008 @ 2:40 pm

  4. Hi, Anne. As I was saying, it always takes a bit of political courage to ask the American public to sacrifice a little. Some Montanans might actually admire a bit of Obamian courage.

    Comment by David Giacalone — July 4, 2008 @ 2:49 pm

  5. as difficult as this is to say considering my loathing of almost all things republican, if any team can botch a sure victory, the
    dc donkeys (asses) certainly can.

    election season
    in the senator’s lapel
    a wilted rose


    Comment by ed markowski — July 4, 2008 @ 3:44 pm

  6. I am glad that Obama has taken that stand. It is okay to slow down to save gas. I have done it a little myself, but to suggest that we post a speed limit 30 mph below the design speed of our roads is absurd. In the best times for 55 between 1974-1980, fleet fuel mileage did not improve significantly. In addition the National Academy of Sciences estimated that raising the speed limit to 65 mph would increase fuel consumption by around 0.18 percent. The 55 mph speed limit was a total and complete failure. CAFE did a lot more to raise national fuel scores.

    Comment by John — July 6, 2008 @ 8:50 am

  7. John, Thanks for commenting, but your arguments sound more like excuses than explanations or justifications for continuing to allow drivers to waste fuel and drive up overall demand and prices.

    The existing design of our highways is surely no reason to avoid a better energy policy. [It’s sort of like saying we shouldn’t have noise regulation in our neighborhoods because people all own high-powered sound systems.] The failure to improve fleet fuel mileage when we had a 55 MPH law seems unrelated to the benefits of the lower speed limit. We surely should continue to improve CAFE (even though changing the overall efficiency of the American vehicle fleet is a very slow process, especially when fuel costs leave so many without the disposable income needed to buy a new car). However, refusing to pursue more efficient speed limits at the same time suggests a lack of serious commitment to reducing overall demand — it says, “don’t ask me to change my habits”.

    I’d love to see the source for your 0.18 statistic from NAS; it is far below all recent numbers that I’ve seen. 18% sounds more realistic.

    Comment by David Giacalone — July 6, 2008 @ 9:12 am

  8. The title said it all – Obama disappoints and will disappoint everyone who wants change.

    Comment by Speed Limit — September 24, 2008 @ 12:29 pm

  9. Well, Speed, no one can expect any politician (or any other person with a brain) to agree on every position. In the real world, we have to choose between actual options, and I continue to believe Obama is the clear choice for the kind of changes we need in America.

    Comment by David Giacalone — September 24, 2008 @ 12:47 pm

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