Driving 55 M.P.H.: Saves Gas and Saves Lives? Or Causes More Road Rage?

Once again, the idea of driving 55 miles per hour is out of the closet.

Once mandated in the 1970s — but eventually discarded for 65-75 m.p.h. limits handled by individual states — the concept has resurfaced as oil and gas prices have rocketed to record heights.

A news story published this morning in USA Today brought out the naysayers in droves. An overwhelming majority of the story’s commenters online booed and hissed at the notion that they should do any such inconvenient thing.

Some main complaints are being echoed throughout the comments chamber:

  • The government wants to inflict increasing pain on the public; high gas prices — now this?!
  • Law enforcement is losing revenue because so many people have taken it upon themselves to slow down (the implied reason is because it makes sense to do so), so lower limits will once again pad the coffers of the highway patrol.
  • If a cross-country vacation takes that much longer to drive, all savings are spent on additional hotel stays — so why bother?
  • Anyone who wants to drive 55 m.p.h. can now, so let them choose to do so and let the rest drive faster (legally).
  • Traffic jams will worsen if everyone is required to drive slower.
  • 55 is too slow!!!

In general, the comments are largely filled with complaints and sarcasm and anger. (Ahhh, the modern American way: Call everyone with ideas idiots; “Status quo or bust!”)

Now, I don’t know if driving 55 m.p.h. saves the world or not. But I’m willing to find out the information before spouting venom with abandon.

(By the way, where are all of these passionate voices about things that matter, things that impact more than mere individual conveniences — such as for global warming and recycling and…?)

The USA Today story says Senator John Warner (R-Va.) introduced a bill last month that orders a study be carried out to test the effects of a national 60 m.p.h. limit.

Spearheading an effort that goes five notches lower, Tim Castelman, is promoting the Drive 55 campaign.

By the way, Castelman is being lambasted in the string of comments left at USAToday.com. (Maybe I will be too once I publish this blog post, but such is life with 21st Century media.)

But he must be used to it, judging by the hate e-mails he posts at drive55.org. It’s astounding the seething, loathing, misspelled, incoherent, babbling hatred of this guy and the project as a whole.

(Digression: Again, let global warming and poverty and countless other ills of the world go un-noticed, but send a man with ideas that may just be worthwhile notes that proclaim undying love for Exxon and BP and include words that George Carlin wasn’t allowed to utter on stage.)

Like I said, I don’t know the numbers on benefits from driving slower. Obviously neither do a lot of other people or we wouldn’t need Warner’s proposed study to be done for the latest and greatest understanding of this situation.

What I do know is that when I drive 55 m.p.h. — I have to in my 1973 VW bus; and we sometimes choose to in our 2008, 30-plus m.p.g. Honda Civic — I am more relaxed. I slip into the right lane and just coast, letting all of the madness and road rage roll around me.

(Then I get to where I’m going, really not all that much later than those who’ve freaked out, white-knuckled and high-blood-pressured, all the way home.)

And that, even if only for that, is reason enough to love 55 m.p.h.

Related posts:

Gas Hole the Documentary: History of Oil Prices and Alternative Energy

Petroleum-Based Products Shape Our Lives: Are We Irreversibly Oil Dependent?

High Gas Prices: Empty Tanks Are The New Black in California

Environmental Defense Fund: Eight Ways to Green Your Road Trip

  1. Rockymtnway

    I knew this one would be a political hot potato, but it really is one of the few things the government can do to save gas. I think, at the very least, dropping back to 65 seems like a good move. Popular? No, but tough times call for tough measures.

  2. Bobby B.

    A couple of weeks ago, I offered a response to one of this writer’s posts regarding saving the planet via proper tire inflation. However, after three failed attempts at clicking the “Submit Comment” button, I realized that my comments must not have been welcome. I try again now because Jeff Strasburg founded “sustainablog” as a forum that allows the free exchange of ideas. Let’s see how it goes this time.

    I am one conservative (borderline libertarian) that doesn’t care what the mandated speed limit might be. 55, 65, 70, etc. makes no difference to me. I will observe and obey whatever sign is posted on the side of the road, as long as the state of the road safely supports driving at such a speed. What bothers me with regard to re-mandating 55 mph is the lack of circular reasoning when it comes to such ideas.

    The author’s mid-1970’s model VW probably does perform better at 55 mph, because it was not designed to be operated at much higher speeds than that for extended periods of time. Today’s vehicles, however, are designed to operate at an continuous 70 mph highway speed (maybe more). The engines are lighter and fuel injected, the bodies are less boxy and built to absorb energy in an accident, and the tires are built to perform better at higher rates of speed. Now, all those improvements came with a cumulative increase in price. If dialing down the speed limit will truly save the planet, why not give drivers some incentive (not just tickets) to slow down? Why not offer rebates to those who spent good money on a set of wheels that comfortably cruises at 80 mph, but are forced to drive 55 mph? The rebates could even extend to maintenance and aftermarket items. You see, not only does purchasing and maintaining a sweet ride come at a premium price, but said premium price results in the owner paying disproportionately higher taxes. If the individual who owns a performance automobile spent more on the initial purchase, buys more gasoline, pays more for a set of tires, etc. and pays more in taxes, he should get some sort of rebate if he is forced to drive it like an econobox.

    On a side note, the author says that he drives a 1973 VW bus. In my youth, I considered that to be one of THE ideal vehicles to own. It offered mid-size automobile economy, van-like seating, and small truck utility. It was arguably perfect. However, now that many years have passed and I have a greater understanding of combustion, I have to wonder why any “environmentalist” would admit to driving one. The engine is pre-fuel injection, pre-O2 sensor, pre-catalytic converter, and pre-exhaust gas recirculation. That means – unless he has installed a modern engine – that the author drives one of the dirtiest fuel burners on the road. Whether the Vanagon is doing 55 or 105, my late model pick-up respects the environment ever so much more.

  3. Adam Williams

    @ Bobby —

    Thanks for the comment. As for any reason your previous attempts didn’t make it to the light of day, I couldn’t say. I never saw them.

    And I think my blog posts here and a number of the comments that have been accepted clearly demonstrate my interest and willingness to accept feedback of varying view points. I encourage it.

    As for your comment about my bus, I mentioned in a previous bit that a post is forthcoming (at an unknown point in the future) pertaining to that very quandary: It is an outdated mode that is not in alignment with green intentions, but it also means something more to me than just being an automobile.

    I drive it once a week, twice maybe — and only four to five miles roundtrip. So whether it’s occupying space in my garage, someone else’s or sits at a junkyard, what’s the difference? It’s not burning gas or polluting the atmosphere as long as I am riding my bike.

    And why would I admit to owning one? Why not — it’s the truth. I’m an honest guy and I knowingly opened the door to criticism when I stated that truth.

    Again, thanks for participating in the dialogue here.

  4. Bobby B.

    My tire pressure reply was a real gem, but it is now deleted and will never see the light of the blog. Oh well, maybe something was wrong with the site in general. I will just go ahead and blame Jeff. 😉

    Personally, I would not mind if you logged 1,000 miles a week on your bus, because I really do not believe it contributes to the contrived crisis known as man made global warming. Your decision to keep one of the coolest vehicle ever made – albeit an exhaust nuisance – is your perogative. Unfortunately, it ties into another problem with getting guys like me to buy into the belief system of guys like you.

    You see, the microbus/vanagon is the embodiment of the hippie generation. The free-thinking, free-loving, drug-using remnants of that generation are at the forefront of today’s greenolution. It is as though a whole generation developed a conscience and wants to pay penance for its past sins. However, it is still too enlightened to repent to any god, so it joined itself with giaism, pantheism, and mysticism; and relabeled the whole thing “environmentalism”. I call it “greenism”, because environmentalism sounds like a mere call to clean up as opposed to a way to find (or create) heaven by forcing entire populations to do good works. A church going, Bible believing social and economic conservative like me finds it hard to accept that the “far out” folks from the past have a license on morality. When your side berates my God, my vehicle, my diet, my outdoor activities, and then attempts to lay guilt at my feet for the woes of the entire world, I have to step back and ask what drives you to be so critical of me. And the endless flood of such criticism is breeding more skeptics than converts.

    Thanks for your honesty. I hope you appreciate mine.

  5. Todd

    University of Alabama researchers have investigated that statistically for every 10% increase in gas prices, results in 2% less in vehicle accident deaths.

    Due to less drivers on the road and the remaining drivers are driving slower, closer to 55 mph as you mentioned in the article.

    So they figure, that if the gas prices continue at or greater than $4 per gallon, there will be 12,000 lives saved this year. This is based on an average of 40,000 people die in car accidents per year. The $4 per gallon results in 1,000 lives per month saved.

    Maybe the statistics will help the cause!

  6. Bobby B.

    Will it? A large part of the green movement’s political platform is the plank known as population control. Paul Ehrlich was one of the original apologists pushing this doctrine. Since a true greenie believes that fewer people equals a better world, the plank is routinely conjoined to the women’s movement sacrament that we know as abortion. So, using the “Driving 55 Saves Lives” campaign from the 1970’s to promote greenism could be considered a bit disingenuous. When the green crowd says it is pro-life when it comes to driving but pro-choice when it comes to babies, people should start questioning the movement’s real end goals.

  7. Adam Williams

    Thanks for your perspective and honesty, Bobby.

    I must say, though, you’ve opened a doorway here with your last comment for me to similarly question the conservatives’ end goals.

    You question our interest in saving lives?

    I question the conservative right’s — fanatics of it, certainly, and not representing the whole — willingness to blow up abortion clinics in the name of preserving life.

    I question the conservative right’s lack of interest in providing for its God’s children and that same God’s Earth.

    I question the conservative right’s interest in war, death, destruction, greed and selfishness.

    And by the way, pro-choice is not the equal of pro-abortion/pro-death.

    If a conservative values life, then he might want to embrace a view of his social opposition that also places value on life.

    Why smite Todd down for pointing up the value of life, rather than appreciate it as, presumably, something you agree with given your pro-life stance?

    In general, aside from that pro-life view of the abortion issue, it is a painful irony to me that the religious right is not the end of the spectrum that demonstrates interest in valuing God’s creations, and placing them before money, individual comforts and conveniences, and general self-absorption.

    It is not the end of the spectrum that aligns itself with human rights, and gets into the muck to try to do something about it. Force babies under all circumstances to be born, but then leave them in a lurch because conservatives want nothing to do with supporting them, as is sometimes necessary?

    But we are veering into many other hotpots of discussion here.

    I do appreciate your voice here, Bobby. I appreciate that you speak your pieces without reducing any of this to the typical online slash-and-burn viciousness.

    Keep your thoughts coming, and we may just have a useful dialogue between us all.

  8. Bobby B.

    YOU: I question the conservative right’s — fanatics of it, certainly, and not representing the whole — willingness to blow up abortion clinics in the name of preserving life.

    ME: Very, very few abortion clinics have been blown up and the death count from such atrocities pales in comparison to the greater than 44 million abortions.

    YOU: I question the conservative right’s lack of interest in providing for its God’s children and that same God’s Earth.

    ME: Conservatives (esp. Christians) have an outstanding track record of supporting charities that meet the needs of God’s children. Unfortunately, there will always be those that are hungry or impoverished. I view these types of charities as providers of direct, tangible support. The hungry want food and the poor want protection from the elements (shelter and/or clothing). They really can not comprehend how recycling paper or avoiding Styrofoam helps them.

    BTW, I am still not convinced that the earth needs man to save it.

    YOU: I question the conservative right’s interest in war, death, destruction, greed and selfishness.

    ME: Woodrow Wilson (D) – World War I; F. D. Roosevelt (D) – World War II; Harry S. Truman (D) – Korea; J. F. Kennedy (D) & L. B. Johnson (D) – Vietnam; George Bush (R) – Gulf War I; Bill Clinton (D) – Iraq, Somalia, Bosnia, etc.; and George W. Bush (R) – Afghanistan, Iraq. I think both conservatives and liberals are guilty of this sin.

    YOU: And by the way, pro-choice is not the equal of pro-abortion/pro-death.

    ME: It is to the zealots.

    YOU: Why smite Todd down for pointing up the value of life, rather than appreciate it as, presumably, something you agree with given your pro-life stance?

    ME: Didn’t mean to “smite”. I was just pointing out an inconsistency in using the “55 Saves Lives” campaign to promote greenism.

    YOU: I do appreciate your voice here, Bobby. I appreciate that you speak your pieces without reducing any of this to the typical online slash-and-burn viciousness.

    ME: Slash-and-burn is for non-thinkers, not political ideologues.

  9. Adam Williams


    You’re clearly twisting words and definitions to your benefit. You’re drawing connections where there are none.

    Very political and, therefore, counterproductive.

    I’m losing faith in you, Bobby. I thought we were going somewhere with a useful conversation, one that leaves lies and manipulation at the door and tries to have honest, worthwhile dialogue that provides understanding for opposing, but open-minded, individuals.

  10. Bobby B.

    You opened the door and I addressed your talking points as they were presented. I may have been manipulative by cherry picking my responses to your points, but at no time did I present false information (lies). Whether you wish it to be or not to be, politics will forever be entwined in discussions of ideas that seek to change the habits of entire populations (i.e. a federally mandated change to the speed limit). I do have a tendency to be blunt, and if you inferred my bluntness to be an attack, I do apologize.

  11. valereee

    I don’t like seeing it mandated, but anyone who doesn’t voluntarily drive 55 (in the right lane, please) has lost the right to complain about gas prices. And anyone who thinks the government shouldn’t lower the speed limit has lost the right to complain that the government isn’t doing anything to lower gas prices.

  12. Bobby B.

    So, if I don’t voluntarily drive 55 mph (in the right lane), I lose my First Amendment right to freedom of speech? That doesn’t sound very tolerant nor does it pass Constitutional muster. You should always have the right to complain, whether or not your argument is valid. Also, suggesting that the government dictate how one specific industry operates within our diverse, capitalist economy reeks of totalitarianism. As it stands now, you and a bunch of your friends who are disenchanted with the cost of fuel could combine your resources, tap a well, build a small refinery, and produce your own fuel. Not only that, you could keep it for yourselves and not sell a drop to a complaining public. That’s the beauty of freedom.

    BTW, the government has done a lot to affect fuel prices. They have sequestered millions of acres known to be oil rich and deemed it off limits (i.e. Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge, Outer Continental Shelf, coasts of California and Florida, etc.), they have approved drilling on millions of acres that have been proven by seismic exploration to be devoid of oil and natural gas, and they reap about fifty cents per gallon in taxes from the end user at the pump plus untold billions via taxation of oil company profits. Don’t ever believe that the government isn’t doing its part to affect the cost of fuel.

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