Revisit Highway 61 and put your foot down

WASHINGTON DAYS
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The Independent Online
Fed up with speed limits, and your inability to discover whether that snappy new roadster really does 110 mph? Well, drivers of the world, very soon you will have two places in which put such manufacturers' claims to the test, legally. One of course remains the autobahns of Germany. The other (much more scenic) will shortly be the great state of Montana, occupying an area greater than Germany but with one hundredth the population.

For this notable addition to the sum of human liberties, thank the US Congress which last week finally voted to do away with the 55mph federal speed limit. In its place, individual states will be free to set their own rules. And in the Big Sky Country, the sky will indeed be the limit. Tune those Cadillacs and Cherokees, Saabs and Jags and head for the Northern Plains, where an unspecified "reasonable and prudent speed" will be the only constraint upon your pleasure.

Thus ends a great American anachronism, imposed back in 1974 to reduce oil consumption, when people made jokes about "Sheikh Yamani or Your Life", Opec threatened an embargo and queues at petrol stations stretched for blocks.

These days oil prices are tumbling, and even Saudi Arabia is strapped for cash, while America guzzles imported oil with more abandon than ever. But in theory the country still chugs along at 55mph, except in rural areas where on major highways the limit was put up to 65 mph in 1987.

The operative words, of course, are "in theory". In my experience (and I speak as one who has co-existed with French, Italian, German and Russian drivers for some 20 years) Americans are pretty sensible behind the wheel. But 55mph usually means 60 or 65 in practice, and in 65mph zones you can drive at 75 - or undergo the humiliating and quite terrifying experience of being tailgated by a 40-ton trailer truck, headlights flashing as it demands its God-given right to intimidate every other vehicle on the road. If, as has been calculated, only one in 10 drivers respects the limits, the reason is not ingrained national lawlessness, it is simply the fact that over America's huge distances in the late 20th century, a 55mph speed limit is nonsense.

Cars are far safer and so much better engineered now that dutiful observance of the law can be tedious to the point of danger. Almost all American cars are automatic; add unchanging landscapes and "cruise control", whereby you press a button to hold the car at a constant speed, and all too easily "virtual" driving can turn into real sleep.

Not surprisingly, the opposition to limits has always been strongest in the West where the distances are vast, the people few and dislike of federal government all-abiding. In crowded Eastern states, three speeding tickets can cost you your licence. Montana has a standard speeding fine of $5, or pounds 3, which it officially describes as an "energy conservation ticket", the Big Sky Country's mocking obeisance to Sheikh Yamani and his ilk. In Nevada too, which plans to raise its limit to 75mph, there's no guff about "reckless endangerment" - just the vague offence of a "waste of natural resources", and a $15 fine. All in all, a dozen states have said they will either scrap or raise the limit to 70 or 75mph.

Conceivably of course President Bill Clinton could try to spoil the fun. He is known to favour retaining the current limits, not least because his own father died in a road crash before he was born, probably as a result of driving too fast in bad weather. But the repeal went through the House on the nod, and the Senate by 80 votes to 16, suggesting that a White House veto would be overruled in the flash of a passing Montana pick-up truck.

And consider the abject performance of the lobbies. Normally, on an issue such as speed limits, public safety and medical groups would be having a field day, with righteous press conferences, saturation advertising and zealous "call-your-Congressman" campaigns. But, astonishingly, all has fallen on deaf ears. Perhaps the campaigners have gone too far, and a country that lives by numbers has finally said enough to bombardment by dubious statistics.

The consumer protection guru, Ralph Nader, may warn of 6,400 more deaths and $19bn a year in extra public health and related costs; but why not $5bn, $10bn, or $30bn, and 2,000, 8,000 or 10,000 more lives lost (on top of the 45,000 who currently die in road accidents every year)?

The answer is, no one knows. More to the point, a federal speed limit runs full square against today's doctrine of handing responsibility back to the states. The public has simply had enough and so, I confess, have I - but with one proviso. Please put the brakes on those hellish trucks.

Rupert Cornwell

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