Today in 1995: The House votes to repeal the national speed limit

September 20, 2013

Today in Legal HistoryThere are some laws that, despite effecting a variety of reforms, become widely known for only a single provision.

The National Highway System Designation Act (NHSDA), passed by the House on September 20, 1995, is such a law.  It is almost singularly known for repealing the national speed limit.

The NHSDA designated over 160,000 miles of roads (including the Interstate Highway System) as the National Highway System (NHS).  Under the Act, states were (and continue to receive) federal funds that they are encouraged (though not mandated) to use for the upkeep of these roads.

Despite the seemingly innocuous nature of the law, the debate and eventual passage of the law was marked by partisan fighting.  This conflict was largely attributable to two factors: the sweeping victories in the 1994 midterm elections by Republicans, and the budgetary and federalism matters implicated by the law.

The NHSDA was debated and passed in the midst of a broader conflict between President Bill Clinton and congressional Republicans, led by newly installed Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich – a conflict which ultimately resulted in the 1995-1996 federal government shutdown.  Although the dispute over the NHSDA did not directly contribute to the government shutdown, it was deliberated in one of the most partisan atmospheres (up to that point) since the Civil War.

There were numerous other provisions of the law that contributed to its controversy, however.

Many of these provisions dealt with the budget, including a provision that failed to make it into the final law that would have allowed the use of Federal-aid funds for improvements in the Amtrak system and to subsidize its operations.

The most controversial portions unrelated to the budget had to do with highway safety.  Specifically, the NHSDA removed penalties for states that do not require motorcyclists to wear helmets and eliminated the national speed limit of 55 miles per hour.

The latter provision became what the NHSDA was singularly known for in the media and by the public.  Although the House version of the NHSDA (passed on September 20) repealed the speed limit for all vehicles, the earlier Senate version only did so for passenger vehicles.  The final version of the law adopted the House version of this provision, repealing the national speed limit for all vehicles.

While it was implemented during the 1970s oil crisis as a measure to reduce national gasoline consumption, the national speed limit was later championed more by safety advocates, who argued that it directly reduced the number of highway casualties.  There is evidence to support these claims, as well: in the first year of the national speed limit, almost 9,000 fewer people died in highway crashes compared to the previous year (there were 54,052 highway fatalities in 1973, while there were only 45,196 in 1974, the first year that the national speed limit took effect).

Supporters of the speed limit claimed that repeal of the speed limit would cause thousands of motorist deaths, with one supporter colorfully claiming that the loss of the national speed limit turn the nation’s highways into “killing fields.”

Evidence to support these claims, however, is not as persuasive: in 1995, the rate of fatalities per 100 million miles of travel was 1.7; in 2004, it was 1.46.  Nevertheless, it’s important to note that states have generally kept their speed limits lower after the repeal of the national limit than it was prior to its implementation in 1974.  In addition, compared to the 1970s, cars today are much safer, more safety laws are in place, and seat belt use is far higher – all of which contribute to lower highway fatalities.

The repeal of the highway safety provisions weren’t the only “states’ rights” portions of the NHSDA: the law also prohibited the Department of Transportation from requiring States to post metric highway signs. 

However, federalism didn’t win the day across the board: the NHSDA expanded federal influence over state alcohol consumption regulations.  The law required states to enact and enforce laws that considers an individual under the age of 21 to be driving while intoxicated if he or she has a blood alcohol concentration of 0.02% or greater while driving.  The failure to do so would result in a reduction of federal funding.

The act contains a variety of other provisions, but the NHSDA will continue to be most prominently known as the law that eliminated the national speed limit – helped in no small part by the millions of individuals who enjoy (lawfully) driving at speeds in excess of 55 miles per hour.