Today In History: Nixon Signs 55 MPH National Speed Limit Into Law
The double nickel. Fifty five miles per hour. From this day in 1974 until 1987, the national maximum speed limit was set by law at 55 miles per hour. States were free to set their own speed limits above 55, of course, but doing so would have forfeited federal highway funds. None did, but Nevada, but that state’s brief flirtation with a 70 MPH limit ended when highway funds were pulled, and the limit automatically reverted to 55 MPH as a reaction to that. Money talks, after all.
Though its intent was to save fuel, in response to the 1973 Arab oil embargo, it didn’t perform nearly as well as it was intended to. At the time of its passage, government officials estimated that it would reduce fuel consumption by 2.2% vs. pre-limit levels. In reality, fuel consumption fell by between just 0.5% and 1.1%, depending on who was counting. (The government said 1.1%, and an independent study said 0.5%).
What the double nickel did do, though was frustrate and annoy a generation of motorists – and state officials charged with its enforcement. Gone was the previous notion that speed limits should be set at the 85th percentile of prevailing traffic; many of the roads suddenly shackled by 55 MPH speed limits were designed to handle much faster traffic.
Several states adopted creative ways of ignoring the lower speed limits imposed upon them. Per the ever-reliable Wikipedia,
- Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, and Utah replaced traditional speeding fines with $5–$15 energy wasting fines as long as drivers did not exceed the speed limit in effect before the 55 mph federal requirement.
- Nevada’s energy wasting fine was enacted on April 15, 1981, when signed by Governor Robert List. Motorists not exceeding 70 mph (110 km/h) in 55 mph (89 km/h) zones could be issued $5 “energy wasting” fines. However, standard speeding tickets were still allowed and “troopers were directed not to take the new law as a signal to stop writing tickets.”
- In 1986, North Dakota’s fine for speeding up to 15 mph (24 km/h) over the limit was only $15 and had no license points.
- South Dakota cut speeding fines in 1985 and stopped assessing points for being 10 mph (16 km/h) or less above the speed limit in 1986.
- August 1, 1986, Minnesota, which normally suspended licenses after three tickets, stopped counting speeding tickets for no more than 65 mph (105 km/h).
Eventually, with oil again cheap and increased demand for higher speed limits, Congress acted in 1987 to raise the national speed limit to 65 MPH on rural interstate highways. In late 1995, Congress finally completely repealed the concept of a national speed limit with the National Highway Designation Act. Shortly after the act becoming law, several states raised their speed limits above 65 MPH.
I still remember the first time I legally drove 65 MPH – it was in June 1993 on a stretch I-66 in Virginia shortly after my high school graduation. Freedom! Though Full Metal Autos’s home state of Pennsylvania has speed limits that are capped at 65 MPH, we’ve enjoyed a few legal blasts to 70 and 75 when traveling elsewhere in the U.S.
One interesting footnote of the 55 MPH era was the mandate that all speedometers max out at 85 MPH, and 55 be highlighted. Not that you’d want to go more than 85 in most Malaise-era cars anyway, but it was a ridiculous regulatory intrusion that made no sense. I remember poring over Corvette parts catalogs in the 1980s and being amused by how easily the factory 85 MPH speedo could be replaced by a bolt-in unit that hit the peg at 165 instead (yeah, as if a 180-horsepower C3 could hit a buck sixty five). An acquaintance of mine once reported that his old man’s mid-80s Buick Riviera with full digital dash would just flash “85! 85! 85!” when exceeding that speed, despite having the extra 1 for the hundreds digit. Kilometers, ya know, necessitated the extra digit.
Now, if we could just do something about these remaining 55 MPH roads…