America appears headed for higher-speed interstates and helmetless motorcycling, thanks to a congressional agreement on legislation that would give states significantly more power over federal highways.
The final form of the National Highway System bill was laid out at a press briefing by a House-Senate conference committee Wednesday. The legislation, which includes $6.5 billion in federal highway aid, would repeal federal speed limits on interstate highways and permit states to make their own decisions on motorcycle helmet laws.
The bill is expected to easily pass the House and Senate, possibly as early as Friday. And lawmakers said President Clinton is expected to sign it into law, despite some concerns about its potential effect on highway safety.
Repealing the federal speed limit could lead to 6,400 additional highway deaths per year, warned Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, an alliance of consumer, safety and insurance organizations.
“Last year, more than 41,000 Americans were killed in highway crashes at a cost to the nation of $137 billion,” the group said in a statement this week.
Nine states already have laws on the books to raise speed limits once the bill becomes law. Montana plans to abolish maximum speed limit on roads now posted at 65 miles per hour. That means cars, trucks, buses and motorcycles could go as fast as their engines would carry them until sundown, when the speed limit reverts to 65 mph.
Although several of the conferees expressed disappointment about the repeal of the national speed limit, each chamber earlier this year approved their versions of the measure by wide margins, indicating that most members of Congress - Republican and Democrat - have no problem delegating speed-limit responsibility to the states.
“I have grave concern about the safety features,” said Sen. John Warner, R-Va., of the Environment and Public Works Committee. “I hope our several governors … will step up to the very heavy responsibility.”
The 55 mph federal highway speed limit was imposed to conserve energy in 1974 after a foreign oil embargo created a gasoline shortage. The move produced a safety bonus in the form of fewer interstate highway fatalities.
The speed limit on rural interstates was later raised in most states to 65 mph.
Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety said in a statement Wednesday, “Congress has moved forward with a highway bill that will, for the first time in history, kill more Americans than it saves.”
Higher speed limits mean higher costs for automobile insurance, medical insurance and workers compensation, the group said, estimating that the economic drain of the NHS bill will exceed $19 billion every year.
However, several of the lawmakers said the measure was not a safety issue but a states-rights issue.
“This legislation demonstrates again the resolve of Congress to provide mandate relief and delegation to the states,” said Sen. Dirk Kempthorne, R-Idaho.
Speed limits aside, the main purpose of the legislation is to designate nearly 161,000 miles of road to receive $6.5 billion in federal highway aid in fiscal 1996, which began Oct. 1. It also would repeal requirements for metric signage.
The final version of the bill leaves intact restrictions on billboards along scenic byways - billboards can exist only in areas designated as industrial and commercial - and would deny states the ability to spend some of their federal highway aid money on Amtrak or mass transit.
The conference report also includes relaxed regulations under the Clean Air Act’s inspection and maintenance program and transportation conformity requirements; and unspecified “exemptions from burdensome regulations on certain motor carriers,” according to a statement from Warner.