News from the Tennessee Valley Opinion
MONDAY, MAY 2, 2005


Just obeying the speed limit would save high-priced fuel

Robert K. Kaufmann, an expert quoted by The New York Times in a story about the 55 mph speed limit, observes that one step toward reducing the nation's energy usage would be higher gasoline tax. "Of course," he says, "that would have to involve personal sacrifice, which is off the table politically."

Mr. Kaufmann, a geography professor with the Center for Energy and Environmental Studies at Boston University, probably is right if he means that the government is not going to require Americans to inconvenience themselves in order to save energy and make us rely less on foreign oil.

For that reason, a 55 mph limit probably won't fly. Few politicians will support it; Alabama and other states would lack funds to enforce it. Most Americans who remember the 55 mph limit that came out of the 1973 Arab oil embargo probably do not want to go back to it, despite estimates that it saved 2.2 percent of the total usage of gasoline and diesel fuel in 1983.

But if government-enforced personal sacrifice is off the table, enlightened voluntary personal sacrifice should not be. Every driver can reduce personal energy consumption — and high prices are motivating more drivers to do so. (The popularity of hybrids and other fuel-saving vehicles shows it.)

A sensible way to save fuel is to slow down. Forget 55, if you must. The Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group, says that cutting speeds to 65 mph from 75 would reduce highway gasoline consumption by about 15 percent. And 65 is already the speed limit in much of the nation.

Another benefit, NRDC notes, is that lower speeds would save lives.

The United States' demand for oil has gone up by 38 percent since the 1973 energy crisis hit — while oil consumption in most industrial nations has stopped growing or gone down. Conservation measures (including the 55 mph limit) did make a difference, though. U.S. gasoline demand remained flat from about 1974 to 1984.

Without political risk, the government can inform people that we must voluntarily save energy, urge us to do so, and enforce existing laws. In that vein, NRDC recommends that Congress give money to states that strictly enforce speed limits and post signs such as "Drive 65 — for your safety and America's energy security."

Even in these self-indulgent times, this is not too much to ask of Americans.

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