The Senate voted Tuesday to allow states to raise speed limits on the nation’s highways, despite warnings that repealing the current law would lead to more carnage on the road.
Under the bill, which still must clear several more hurdles before becoming law, the federal government no longer could set a maximum limit of 65 mph for rural interstates and 55 mph for urban areas.
The Senate, however, narrowly defeated a GOP proposal to grant states free rein in deciding whether to require the use of seat belts and motorcyclists’ helmets. The Senate also narrowly voted to continue the existing federal limit for large trucks and buses.
“The time has come for Congress to trust the states,” said Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont. He argued that speed limits should reflect road conditions, economic needs and cultural traits of individual states.
But opponents cited U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that raising speed limits could lead to as many as 5,000 additional highway fatalities a year and hundreds of thousands of serious injuries.
“It just doesn’t make any sense,” said Jackie Gillan, vice president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. “Every year, more than 40,000 people are killed in traffic accidents. And the trend is up.”
Last year, 40,676 people were killed in traffic accidents, compared with 40,115 the year before, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.
The speed limit repeal is part of a highway funding bill expected to be approved by the Senate later this week. The bill would provide $6.5 billion in highway aid to the states for designated routes.
The House has not taken up the bill, but is expected to broadly endorse the Senate’s version. Although Transportation Secretary Federico Pena is opposed to the repeal of the national speed limit, the White House has not made clear whether President Clinton would veto the bill.
In their debate Tuesday, senators voted 65-35 to table an amendment that would have retained the national speed limit for cars.
Senators in favor of lifting the national speed limit portrayed their move as an effort to ease the burden of federal regulations.
Some of the chief advocates were Western senators whose constituents often have to travel long distances from homes to jobs on lightly traveled roads and have pressed for higher speed limits to shorten their commuting time.
The Westerners were joined by senators ideologically opposed to federal mandates. Sen. Lauch Faircloth, R-N.C., for example, said the “one size fits all” approach is simply another example of heavy-handed dictating by federal authorities.
“If a state legislature is not capable of setting a speed limit in that state, then what is it capable of?” Faircloth said.
The link between high speed and auto fatalities has been repeatedly established. The National Academy of Sciences said that between 2,000 and 4,000 lives a year have been saved since 1974 when a national speed limit of 55 mph was set to counter the Arab oil embargo and save fuel.
In 1987, when the limit on rural interstate highways was raised to 65 mph, fatalities on those stretches alone rose by 30 percent. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates that the 1987 change has added about 500 fatalities a year to the death toll.
“The message here is quite clear,” said Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio. “Speed kills.” DeWine joined Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., in the unsuccessful effort to retain current speed limits.
xxxx HOW THEY VOTED Here’s how Northwest senators voted on the federal speed limit. A “yes” vote was a vote to let the states set their own speed limits. Idaho. Larry Craig, R, yes; Dirk Kempthorne, R, yes. Montana. Max Baucus, D, yes; Conrad Burns, R, yes. Oregon. Mark Hatfield, R, no; Bob Packwood, R, yes. Washington. Slade Gorton, R, yes; Patty Murray, D, no.