If highway speed limits change in Washington, it will be the fourth time in 22 years.
The state Highway Commission in 1973 lowered the limit from 70 to 50 mph in response to the Arab oil embargo.
Early the following year, President Nixon signed a bill setting the national limit at 55 mph, claiming it would save 200,000 barrels of oil a day. Washington raised its top speed, while other state’s lowered theirs, to match the federal limit.
After the oil crisis ended, the limit remained. Highway safety advocates said it saved 9,000 lives nationwide each year.
A study in 1977 showed that two out of every three Washington residents liked the slower speed limit. A 1979 study showed that two out of three of them ignored it.
Bashing the speed limit became a national passion, especially among the young. Teens flocked to “Smokey and the Bandit,” Burt Reynolds’ 1977 hit movie that mocked the “double nickel” limit. In 1984, Sammy Hagar’s song, “I Can’t Drive 55,” rose to No. 26 on the rock ‘n’ roll charts.
The 1980 Republican Party platform called for an end to the speed limit.
“The experiment with Speed Prohibition is a failure,” Road and Track magazine reported in 1980.
In 1987, Congress authorized raising the speed limit to 65 mph on rural stretches of interstate highways, and speed limit signs changed in Idaho, Washington and 36 other states.
The current proposal passed in the House of Representatives and Senate with overwhelming support.
In addition to ending the federal speed limit, it would let states decide whether motorcyclists must wear helmets and whether mileage signs must show distances in both miles and kilometers. It toughens drunken driving laws for minors, setting the blood-alcohol limit at 0.02, rather than the 0.10 limit standard for adults.
Among the Northwest Senate delegation, only Sen. Mark Hatfield, R-Oregon, and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., voted against the bill.
Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., voted to eliminate the federal speed limit, even though he fought legal challenges to the state’s 50-mph speed limit in 1973, when he was the state attorney general.
Gorton argued in 1973 that the state should have the right to set its own limit, and noted that slower speeds meant “a lot of lives being saved and a lot of fuel being saved.”
Efforts to reach Gorton’s spokesman this week were unsuccessful.
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