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55-M.P.H. Speed Limit

November 20, 1986

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."

Also, I take issue with O'Neill's assertion that raising speed limits would not improve compliance. Countless traffic engineering studies have shown that arbitrarily low speed limits cause high levels of non-compliance, while limits based on actual traffic flow (the case before 55) results in compliance levels approaching 90%.

Our profession has always held that speed limits should be based on local conditions, recognizing that driving environments vary from highway to highway. One single speed limit for a nation of diverse highway and geographical conditions is absurd.

Congress should repeal the national speed limit, so that each state highway department--which is responsible for the design, construction and maintenance of state and Interstate highways--can set speed limits based on careful engineering studies for each individual highway. The result would be reasonable, safe speed limits that a majority of motorists would respect and obey.

JAMES E. VARNEY

Sacramento

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