Did the 55mph speed limit save gas? The 55mph speed limit, not too affectionately referred to as the “double nickel” was instituted in the 1970’s in response to oil supply problems cased by OPEC’s embargo. Formally called the National Maximum Speed Law, the law was viewed by disdain by drivers used to traveling over 70mph on our nation’s interstates.
People voted with their right feet, the one pressed firmly on the gas pedal, and in time the 55mph speed limit faded into history. Joy was felt throughout the land when the 55mph limit was raised to 65. In 1995 the last vestiges of the old speed law were removed, and the power to set their own speed limits was restored to the individual states.
Did the 55mph speed limit fulfill it’s intended purpose and save valuable gas? Well, first let’s take a look at some of the other effects of the 55mph limit. Despite the hue and cry that arose when the limit was repealed, and dire predictions of over 6,000 new highway deaths, the year after the repeal of the limit saw a record low level of traffic fatalities. This seemed to indicate that traffic safety, the main rationale for retaining the speed limit at snail-like levels after the oil crisis passed, was not greatly improved by the slower speed limit.
On the other hand, 55mph limit cost, by some estimates 200 million man hours per year. The National Academy of Sciences estimated the low speed limit cost the country far more, closer to 1 billion hours annually, in lost time.
Finally, did the 55mph speed limit actually save gas, as we were told it would when it was enacted? Actually, yes it did, but nowhere near the 400,000 barrels of oil per day that some experts predicted it could save. The Department of Transportation’s Dr. John Eberhardt did a study on 1978 that indicated the gas savings were no more than 1% of our total gasoline usage. So while it did save some gas, it was nowhere near what it cost in lost productivity and driver’s time. One may note that this time may never be recovered.
So the 55mph speed limit cost 1 billion hours per year, saved few, if any lives and didn’t come anywhere close to delivering the amount of gas savings we were assured it would when the law was enacted. That sounds like a law that should remain forever in our nation’s history books, never again to be seen on its highways.