US Senator Richard Warner (R-VA) has requested that the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) study the imposition of the 55 mph speed limit in the US in 1974 to determine whether the administration and Congress should take similar action now.
In January 1974, in response to the oil crisis triggered by the OPEC oil embargo imposed in October 1973, President Richard Nixon signed into law the Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act, which had passed both the House and the Senate unanimously. The law established inducements for states to reduce speed limits to 55 mph on all major highways. Failure to comply would jeopardize the ability of states to secure highway funds.
Prior to this, speed limits were established and enforced by the States and not by the Federal Government.
Given the fuel savings of the act, and the resulting decrease in highway fatalities attributable to the lower speed limit, Congress made the national speed limit permanent in December 1974. In 1995, the law was repealed.
A National Academy of Sciences study in 1984 estimated that the savings in energy from the “double nickel” were 167,000 barrels of petroleum per day, or less than 2% of the US’ highway fuel consumption. This represented an energy saving worth $2 billion annually then.
The panel also found that compliance with the law had decreased markedly in the years following the subsiding of the oil crisis (and oil prices), and that this trend might lead to a gradual nullification of the national speed limit and, therefore, to the loss of the safety and energy benefits.
Warner is asking the DOE and GAO to answer the following questions:
Given the significant technological improvements since 1974, at what speed is the typical vehicle traveling on US highways today most fuel efficient?
If a national speed limit were enacted similar to the 1974 law, but the speed limit under than law was consistent with the most fuel efficient speed for the typical vehicle on US highways, what would be a reasonable projection for total fuel savings? What would be the savings for the average citizen who owns and operates a vehicle?
If a new national speed limit was enacted consistent with the first two questions, how many fewer barrels of petroleum a day would Americans consume? Is it reasonable to believe that there would be a reduction in price at the pump, and if so, what are the ranges?
If the federal government took the initiative to reduce its oil consumption, consistent with the concepts of the sense-of-the-Senate resolution (S. Res. 577), how many fewer barrels of petroleum a day would be saved by the federal government?
In a speech on the floor of the Senate in which he announced his request for information from DOE and GAO, Senator Warner said:
I am not taking a position that at this time we should invoke a new initiative in the Congress to pass legislation calling for a national speed limit because I simply do not have the facts. I am on a fact-finding mission. But if those facts come forward, as I believe they will, and show that this will help alleviate and lessen the demand at the pump and the cost to the American citizen, then I am quite likely to try—more than that, I am quite probably going to try—and garner support on both sides of the aisle to push forward with this legislation. I say so because I come back again to about a third of America at this point in time is frantically trying to make ends meet. We have to come up with a solution. We have to lead in the Congress, and hopefully the President will join. We have that duty.