Opinion

Country can save gas by dropping speed limits | Adele Ferguson

LIKE IT IS

With gasoline now over $4 a gallon, ethanol losing its appeal as a substitute fuel which would cost more to produce than gas and the ANWR still locked up for the caribou, how about doing what we did when we were crying the blues over gasoline in the 1970s?

Drop the speed limit on highways nationwide to 55 miles per hour.

Yes, I know Saudi Arabia is jacking up its oil production to 10 million barrels a day from 9.45 million. But that may only be for July, and the demand of giant consumers such as China and India continues to grow. Worse is the fact we rely on foreign suppliers who can cut us off any time, the way the Saudis did in 1973.

The Arabs increased their price fourfold and imposed a total ban on sales to the United States after outbreak of the Arab-Israeli War, reopening the spigots in 1974, the same year the feds ordered the 55 mph speed limit.

Our drivers didn’t like it, of course, so in 1976, with gas more plentiful, there was a big push to repeal it. The Western Council of State Governments met in Salt Lake City and drew legislative leaders from all the western states.

A resolution was introduced by a Nevada senator calling on the feds to repeal the speed limit and leave it up to each state to set its own. The vote came out 23 to 23, but the tie was broken by the chair, an Arizona legislator, who provided an aye for passage.

Our two delegates were Sens. Sam Guess of Spokane and C.W. “Red” Beck of Port Orchard, who voted no. They opposed it because, Beck said, the director of the Federal Bureau of Public Roads told him the Reagan administration would not go along with it. Although it was set as a means of conserving energy, it had accomplished the added benefit of saving lives. Excessive speed is the cause of the most traffic fatalities.

Reduction of the speed limit from 70 to 55, if strictly enforced nationwide, Beck said, “would save 200,000 barrels of crude oil a day. That would distill 8.9 million gallons of gasoline a day, which amounts to 32 billion gallons a year.” I don’t vouch for his arithmetic. Math wasn’t my best subject in school.

Despite the resolution for states to set their own limits, most stayed at 55 because the feds threatened to cut off their matching funds for highways if they went over.

In 1984, a national group studied the effect of the 55 mph limit and recommended that it be continued, despite the fact 52.6 percent of the traffic exceeded the limit. In Washington, it was 49 percent.

State legislators complained that the limit was set for conservation purposes due to a gasoline shortage and that was over. The Washington State Patrol, however, estimated that it had saved more than 1,000 lives in the 10 years of its existence and lobbied to keep it.

In 1986, the U.S. Senate okayed 65 mph on rural interstates. Our state patrol still didn’t like it and warned it would continue enforcing 55 mph. “The problem with raising the speed limit on the interstate,” WSP Major Lyndon Woodmansee said, “is that after they leave that, they continue to drive 65 and 70 on the two-lane narrower roads.”

Ridership in van pools has increased 50 percent since 2003, DOT tells me, and there’s a new push led by McCain and Bush for drilling offshore and in the ANWR but I don’t have much hope it will happen although I am for it.

I have already begun taking my foot off the gas pedal and try to drive 50 mph on the various freeways. To no one’s surprise, I’m sure, I’m passed by everyone. I still think 55 mph is a better solution than looking forward to $5 or $10 a gallon gas in days to come.

Adele Ferguson can be reached at P.O. Box 69, Hansville, WA 98340.

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