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Editorial: Cap U.S. Speed Limit At 55 Mph To Save Gas

This story was written by Editorial Board, The Daily Iowan

It is time to consider all possible strategies that could ease the burden on American drivers, not to mention slow the amount of pollution our vehicles belch out every day now that oil prices have soared to a staggering $145 per barrel, and the national average is hovering above $4 per gallon.

Congress is sure to debate the expansion of domestic drilling for some time, but even if ill-advised expansion of drilling goes through, short-term strategies need to be in the works.

One such idea is developing on the floors of Congress. John Warner, the influential senator from Virginia, has asked his colleagues to reconsider imposing a national speed limit of 55 or 60 miles per hour. At lower speeds, the Energy Department expects cars to operate at optimum efficiency. As a result, drivers could expect to see fuel levels upheld and prices at the pump reduced. This proposal is the first nationwide strategy on oil conservation to emerge, and its figures are convincing. If Americans hope to avoid an even greater fuel crisis, this strategy should be adopted.

In 1974, in response to an oil shortage caused by the Arab oil embargo, Congress set the national speed limit at 55 mph. It was not repealed until 1995. In that time, significant strides were made in terms of fuel preservation and lower pricing. Warner has cited studies showing that the national speed limit saved 167,000 barrels of oil a day. In a letter to Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, Warner writes, "Given the significant increase in the number of vehicles on America's highway system from 1974 to 2008, one could assume that the amount of fuel that could be conserved today is far greater."

However, oil and money were not the only things saved. Warner also provided statistics that showed while fuel consumption was lowered, lives were saved. An effect of the slower, safer speeds was an average decrease of 4,000 traffic-related deaths per year. Even after the oil crisis of the mid-1970s was abated, the 55 mph speed limit was retained because of its safety aspect.

Those drivers who claim to be incapable of driving at slower speeds should be advised of some alarming figures. Fuel efficiency decreases rapidly at rates higher than 60 mph. Every additional 5 mph above 60 is estimated to cost motorists essentially another 30 cents per gallon. Hybrid vehicles that average around 38 miles per gallon can reach 50 mpg when traveling at 55 mph. If that speed jumps to 65, the efficiency in terms of mpg drops dramatically to the low 30s. Driving slower is something we all can do. It is an imperative step to take and certainly one of which everyone is capable.

Yet setting a national speed limit is really only the first step. As we all do our small part to battle the fuel crisis, Congress is then allotted more time to consider long-term strategies. This is an opportunity for Americans to save gas, save money, and save lives. Never mind that Sammy Hagar couldn't "drive 55(!)" in his 1985 hit single. We can, and we must.

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