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Blood on the Highway

December 23, 1987

Congress now has fragmentary but quite plausible evidence of what it got for meddling with the 55-m.p.h. speed limit last April. More death on the highways.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the number of fatalities has increased by slightly more than 50% on remote stretches of the interstate highway network where states were allowed to put speed limits back up to 65 m.p.h.

The statistics, covering three months of last summer, involve only 22 states that had by then taken advantage of the invitation to boost speed limits. In California, the fatalities on rural highways went up 47% over the year before while fatalities on other highways stayed about the same.

Congress was swayed by two shaky arguments. One was that people were speeding anyway. The other was that states, particularly in the West, were in danger of losing federal highway funds because half of their drivers were speeding.

It is bad enough to buckle under pressure from Western governors once. But now, despite the new report, the omnibus federal spending bill gives 20 states permission to increase speed limits on rural roads that are not part of the interstate system.

It doesn't take a radar gun or a degree in medicine to know that the higher the speed, the higher the odds of severe injury or death if something goes wrong. But it does take some paying attention--something that Congress neglected on this one.

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