Today in 1974: President Nixon signs national speed limit legislation into law

January 2, 2015

Today in Legal HistoryAs you may have noticed, gasoline prices have recently took a significant tumble, which has contributed to the recent spike in U.S. economic growth.

Aside from the aggregate economic effect of gas prices, they can also make quite a political impact, with the sitting president’s or dominant political party’s fortunes shifting with the rise and fall of prices at the pump.

It should come as no surprise that politicians will take a variety of measures to reduce these prices.  And one of the first such measures – and the first that wasn’t directly tied to wartime rationing – was the National Speed Limit Law, enacted as part of the 1974 Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act.  The act was signed into law by President Richard Nixon 41 years ago today, on January 2, 1974.

As the name implies, the Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act was intended to reduce energy consumption, and the imposition of the national speed limit, which was set at 55 miles per hour, was the centerpiece of the law.

The impetus for the limit was the skyrocketing oil prices that were a result of the international oil cartel OPEC’s (Organization for Petroleum Exporting Countries) quadrupling of oil prices and blocking oil shipments to the U.S. in response to the West’s support for Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.  As a result of the massive price increases, Nixon believed that setting a national speed limit would reduce gasoline consumption by 2%, which would help lower prices.

Before the law’s enactment, individual states had sole authority to set highway speed limits within their borders.  Technically, that didn’t change after the law’s passage, but states that did not comply with the national speed limit were denied federal funding for highway repair.  Consequently, every state complied.

Nevertheless, enforcement among the states was lax, due to the law’s intense unpopularity both among motorists who viewed the limit as an affront to individual liberty and the states who felt their police powers were being infringed upon by the federal government.  According to studies, over 80% of drivers violated the speed limit, and Western states such as Arizona, Nevada, and Utah replaced their previous speeding fines with “energy wasting fines” that imposed penalties of only $5 to $15 as long as drivers did not exceed the speed limit in effect before the federal 55 mph limit.

Thus, because of widespread disregard for the limit, the reduction in consumption is believed to be less than half of what was hoped for by the time of its repeal in 1995.  Interestingly enough, despite its massive unpopularity and ineffectiveness, there was still opposition to repeal in the 1990s, specifically from proponents who claimed that the speed limit reduced motor-related fatalities.

However, fatalities continued to decline after repeal, so any increase in roadway safety can more likely be attributed to improvements with the safety of the cars themselves, rather than with the national speed limit.

Considering its unmitigated ineffectiveness, it should come as no surprise that when gas prices spiked again (and repeatedly) within the past decade, there was little to no serious consideration of reinstituting the national speed limit.

And it’s unlikely that when oil prices climb again, as they almost certainly will, there will be any genuine debate about whether to set a speed limit at the national level.