As a practicing engineer, I feel compelled to respond to Brian O'Neill's letter (Nov. 4). O'Neill is president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
While he claims that "55 saves lives" is an indisputable fact, many in my profession feel otherwise. The oft-quoted federal study that asserts that the 55-m.p.h. speed limit has saved 3,000 or so lives used data only from the 55- limit's first year (1974), then projected the estimated fatality reductions forward to today.
This analytical approach is erroneous because today's highway environment is different from 1974--today vehicles brake and handle much better, interiors are more "friendly" to occupants in accidents, seat-belt use is up and billions of dollars have been spent on improvements to the nation's highway network. Experience here and abroad is showing that speed limits per se have little to do with accident rates.
If the federal 55 study had considered contemporary data, the study committee would have found that although non-compliance with 55 is at an all-time high, the fatality rate is at an all-time low. James E. Smith, commissioner of the California Highway Patrol, states that raising speed limits where justified would not compromise safety because it would "legalize what is already occurring."