By on December 1, 2015

unsafe55

On Nov. 29, 1995, having lost Congress to the Republicans in the 1994 midterm elections, President Bill Clinton reluctantly signed a transportation bill that repealed the National Maximum Speed Limit of 55 miles per hour. The NMSL was made law in 1973, during the Nixon administration, in response to the oil embargo and energy crisis that followed in the wake of the Yom Kippur War. While it didn’t precisely mandate a national 55 mph limit, the law allowed the federal government to withhold highway funds from states that didn’t lower expressway speed limits to 55, the so-called “double nickel.”

It just so happened that the next day was the 30th anniversary of the publication of Ralph Nader’s highly influential book about car safety, “Unsafe At Any Speed.”That book accused the automotive industry of not just ignoring the fact that their cars were death traps, but also he claimed that automakers designed-in those dangers.

One of Nader’s prime targets was the rear-engined and swing-axled Chevrolet Corvair, which had some inherent stability issues that GM decided to fix with unequal tire pressures front and back instead of using a more sophisticated and more costly hardware fix.

GM also made the mistake of hiring a private investigator to snoop on Nader, who later sued and won. The lawsuit and large award (if memory serves me well, it was $500,000 when that was very serious money) made Nader a public figure to this day.

Unsafe-Bk-25th-300

Upon Clinton’s signature that allowed speed limits to rise, Nader said in 1995 that “President Clinton is about to join the Congress in supporting legislation that his own Department of Transportation says will kill and injure tens of thousands more Americans on the highways every year and cost the nation more than $19 billion a year.

President Richard Nixon signed the 55 MPH Speed Limit into law, but unfortunately my search fu has failed me and I cannot find an appropriate photo. Pres. Jimmy Carter was an enthusiastic supporter.

President Richard Nixon signed legislation that forced a national 55 MPH Speed Limit into law, but unfortunately my “search fu” has failed me and I cannot find an appropriate photo. Pres. Jimmy Carter was an enthusiastic supporter.

After the NMSL was enacted, highway fatality rates indeed went down. Part of that may have been due to lower speeds, but it was also possibly due to people driving fewer miles, though larger trends were likely involved.

Expressway fatality rates had been going down for decades, since the 1940s. Consequently, traffic death rates went down after the 55 mph limit was enacted, but they also went down after the repeal of that same 55 mph limit, contrary to Nader’s dire predictions of more carnage on the roads. In fact, highway fatality rates went down quicker in those states that raised their highway speed limits than in those states that kept the limit at 55.

While it undoubtedly saved gasoline and diesel fuel, at the cost of many, many hours of time that could have been devoted to other, more productive things, it’s not entirely clear how many lives were saved by the NMSL. It did help grow the consumer electronics industry as truckers embraced CB radios as a means of avoiding “Smokey” and car enthusiasts started using radar detectors.

Feel free to discuss Ralph Nader, the 55 mile per hour speed limit, or any combination of the two.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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99 Comments on “Two Coincidental Anniversaries: Nader’s ‘Unsafe At Any Speed’ Turns 50, 30 Years After National Speed Limit Abolished...”


  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    There are no coincidences.

    Nice piece Ronnie.

    • 0 avatar
      Car-los

      You are absolutely right, there is no coincidence here.

      This reminds me also of an episode of Top Gear where Jeremy Clarkson points out that our current speeds limits our also out of date since modern cars have a much more efficient breaks than there used to in the 70’s needing shorter distances to stop at higher speeds.

      The whole issue needs to be readdress.

      • 0 avatar
        RideHeight

        Come to America, find the largest shopping mall possible in the city where your airplane lands and just walk around in it observing people for an hour or two.

        They are what is controlling all those 2+ ton battering rams you would have further unfettered.

        • 0 avatar
          DukeGanote

          Bosh: Rural interstates are the fastest, safest, and most fuel-efficient rural roads. That’s why we built a network from coast-to-coast.

          In 1974, rural interstates accounted for less than 10% of the U.S’ vehicle-miles-traveled in 1973. Anyone who’s read an EPA sticker knows that free-flowing roads provide more fuel-efficient travel than conventional roads.

          Therefore any impact from ’55’ was bound to be trivial on a national scale.

          A quick review of the Federal Highway Administration “Highway Statistics” for 2013 shows rural interstates had a fatality rate of 0.86 — FAR FAR lower than the rates of 1.73 to 2.74 on other rural roads. That’s in Table FI-30 if you care about verifying facts.

  • avatar
    MBella

    If cars were geared for 70-75mph to be the cruising speed, fuel economy wouldn’t even be an argument for lower speed limits.

    • 0 avatar
      matador

      This. I have a 1986 Dodge pickup. It’s newer than the creation of the 55MPH limit, but it shares in common one major trait- it has a manual transmission without overdrive. If you were doing 75 in that truck (If you could), you’d know it. 60MPH is the happy limit for that truck.

      Gears save the planet.

      • 0 avatar
        VolandoBajo

        Had an 88 Thunderbird Sportcoupe, 302/AOD, which had an O/D.

        It would turn about 1650 rpm at 75mph, and mileage, IIRC, was above 20 on the highway.

        As the song went “I can’t drive…55!”.

        Nader was and remains an opportunist, the spiritual forefather of all the limousine liberals who seek to legislate what is best for us, while ignoring their prescriptions for themselves.

        Every once in a while I see an online or magazine article about best license plates. One in Williamsburg VA usually makes the list: a vintage Corvair with license plate “F NADER”.

        I did a consulting assignment with traffic engineers once, and they all acknowledged that modern highways were engineered to be safe to at least 80-90 mph, sometimes even greater.

        Monster vehicles may have more energy and momentum at higher speeds, but those same higher speed limits give me more opportunities to elude and to evade them, also.

        In many parts of the NE corridor traffic routinely drives between 70-80mph. Not just a percentage of it, nearly all of the traffic does.

        Injustice arises when local gendarmerie go out of their way to pick off out of state vehicles riding in a pack of cars going that speed, while ignoring in state vehicles running neck and neck with them.

        That is all…you are free to go back to your fantasy that they are from Washington, they are here to help you.

        I have taught my son that when Congress is in session, he should be sure to keep his hand on his wallet, figuratively speaking.

        And unless you are one of my small circle of friends, stay the hell off my lawn, too.

        Hand me down my walking stick…

    • 0 avatar
      RogerB34

      The double nickel was a response to the 1973 Arab oil embargo enhanced by US Government gasoline mismanagement.
      55 isn’t about gearing. Drag increases as the square of speed.
      What was the Victory speed?

    • 0 avatar
      Pch101

      “If cars were geared for 70-75mph to be the cruising speed, fuel economy wouldn’t even be an argument for lower speed limits.”

      Unless you’ve found a transmission that has reinvented the law of physics, this is incorrect.

      Lower speed limits don’t do much to save fuel because few drivers obey the lower limits. But slower driving saves fuel.

      • 0 avatar
        jrhmobile

        And steady driving saves more. Which is where overdrive transmissions really pay off … or pay the price.

        Right now I’m sharing a car with two 50-60-ish women who learned to drive in the crowded Northeast. Cycling around the speed limit, on the gas, off the gas. Repeat every two to five seconds. Every time a little, but sometimes a lot. I cruise, steadily, at ten over the limit. And I’m scoring roughly 6 mpg more than them on a week in, week out basis.

        With overdrive? They’re tipping into the throttle even more to get the trans to kick down and accelerate to the next point where they’ll jump off the gas.

        • 0 avatar
          turf3

          Yes, I have been unfortunate enough to ride with “digital drivers”. My own wife is a mild case. I have been enjoined from saying anything about it. Consequently, I drive 99% of the time.

      • 0 avatar
        krhodes1

        @PCH101

        If your argument was correct, then a running car would achieve its best fuel efficiency when stopped. That is obviously not the case. Each car has a most efficient speed, determined by gearing and aerodynamics. Given a decently slippery modern car, especially with turbocharging to create the low end torque to run really tall gears and increase efficiency, that speed is likely closer to 75 than 55. Drag may increase with the cube of velocity, but when there is very little drag to start with… Saab really got this right with the early 9-5s, they would massively beat their EPA numbers on a highway run at higher speeds.

        55mph worked when cars were shaped like garden sheds with 120hp 5.0L V8s. And it would work with trucks today.

        • 0 avatar
          Pch101

          It’s basic physics. In the time that you typed your post, you could have looked it up for yourself.

        • 0 avatar
          RazorTM

          Drag (the force) is proportional to the square of the velocity.

          The power required to overcome the drag is proportional to the cube of the velocity.

          My modern Passat TDI gets roughly 56mpg at 60mph cruise and loses 5mpg for every additional 5mph, so [email protected], [email protected], and [email protected] Although I haven’t tracked the efficiency below 60mph over long distances, I feel that the most efficient speed is probably between 45 and 55mph, and I doubt that there are any cars out there whose most efficient speed is around 75mph.

          • 0 avatar
            cdotson

            My 2002 Ram 1500, 4.7L/5spd manual with 3.55 rear gearing typically gets the best fuel economy at a steady 72mph. This places the engine at a local torque peak (2000 rpm torque reserve is higher than above/below until you get up to almost 3000 rpm) in top gear. It will get better fuel economy at a slower speed on dead level ground without wind, but there’s zero torque reserve causing it to go into open-loop high load or requiring a downshift to maintain speed, thus torpedoing economy over the long term.

            I do suspect this is peculiar to the unusually tall gearing combined with only moderate low-end torque for a truck. Also the unusual torque curve of that SOHC V8 that rises to 2k, drops a bit, then rises further past 4k or so (been a while since I’ve seen the curve). My 2014 Hyundai also seems to get its best economy around 2k RPM in 6th gear, but that’s about 55mph and somewhat subject to the downshift requirement that low on the torque curve.

      • 0 avatar
        matador

        I’ve driven a fair number of older trucks (Never an older car, so there may be a difference).

        In the most basic of terms: Overdrive saves fuel. Your engine is running at a lower RPM. I’ve driven examples of 4 and 5 speed manuals, and 3 and 4 speed automatics. With overdrive, my Ford E350 box van could achieve the same fuel mileage as my 1986 Dodge without overdrive.

        That’s an extreme example, but still. Aerodynamics increase drag, but driving at a higher RPM is worse. Put your car into drive (Not overdrive) and go down the highway for 20 miles in that gear.

        Welcome to 1978.

      • 0 avatar
        MBella

        The laws of physics work just fine. Yes drag increase exponentially, but with modern aero, cars are slippery enough that 70-75 is still achievable. That Newton guy knew something about physics as well. On a steady cruise, you are using just the fuel required to overcome that drag, because inertia keeps it going otherwise. If you were right, you would get your best fuel economy idling forward. Obviously the sweet spot can be changed. Do you think modern jets would get better economy if they flew at 100mph? That exponential increase to 590mpg must really be killing it.

        • 0 avatar
          Pch101

          No car gets better fuel economy at 75 mph than it does at 55 mph. Not a single one.

          This is easily verified. For example, Consumer Reports performed a fuel economy comparison of several cars at 55, 65, and 75 mph. Every car had lower MPG at 65 than it did at 55, and lower MPG at 75 than it did at 65.

          http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/news/2009/09/tested-speed-vs-fuel-economy/index.htm

          If you can find an exception whose results have been verified by a credible, reliable source, then post a link to it here. But you won’t find it because it doesn’t exist.

          • 0 avatar
            DenverMike

            Just so you know, I can’t shift my ’90 Mustang GT into 5th/overdrive at 55 mph. It’ll bog and want to stall at just 500 rpm. So I’ll cruise at 75 mph with just 1,500 rpm vs 2,000 rpm at 55 mph in 4th.

            105 mph is just 2,000 rpm. Or so I’ve heard.

          • 0 avatar
            MBella

            It is not easily verified. If it were, you wouldn’t be talking about the EPA needing way more funding to perform their own fuel economy tests.

          • 0 avatar
            Pch101

            “you wouldn’t be talking about the EPA needing way more funding to perform their own fuel economy tests.”

            I’ve said the opposite. Expanding EPA testing is a complete waste of money and a pointless exercise.

            Your claims can’t be verified because they are false. You haven’t figured out how to rewrite the laws of physics, and neither has anyone else.

          • 0 avatar
            MBella

            You did say it would take a very large increase in funding to do. If it was so simple, it wouldn’t take a drastic increase in funding.

            It’s not changing physics. It’s working within them. The rate that aero drag increases doesn’t start at 40 mph. If that was the only concern, idling through would be the most efficient. You will not get your best mileage at 2mph even though drag is way lower. There are many things that contribute to the speed a vehicle is most efficient. The engine running at an rpm where it’s most efficient is most important. At a steady cruise, you are only fighting the effect the drag has on the inertia of the vehicle. With a low coefficient of drag, and an engine running at an efficient rpm, can be designed to run most efficiently at a whole range of speeds.

          • 0 avatar
            Pch101

            There is no fuel economy test, performed by the EPA or anyone else, that is going to find a car traveling at 75 mph will have better fuel economy than the same car traveling at 55 mph.

            This is a matter of physics, and the fact that you can’t find even one credible example to the contrary should make that obvious.

          • 0 avatar
            RazorTM

            @Pch101

            Thanks for the link to the Consumer Reports mpg test. It just confirms for me that those people who think their vehicles get the best mpg over 70mph have no idea what the most efficient speed actually is.

    • 0 avatar
      rpn453

      “According to Roger Clark, senior manager of GM’s Energy Integration and Fuel Economy Learning Vehicles Program, which handles fuel-economy development of all GM trucks and SUVs, fuel economy may not change much by going to an optional axle ratio.

      “The typical combined-fuel-economy impact, based on lab test conditions, is a difference of about 0.4 mpg to 0.6 mpg between the standard gear ratio (3.42 or 3.55) and the lowest (4.10) offered. That change is linear, too. Choosing 3.73 or 3.92 gear ratios would have even less of an effect on fuel economy.”

      Clark says that in the real world, choosing a lower gear ratio may not even show up in fuel economy associated with city driving. It’s the steady-state, long-distance freeway romps where lower axle ratios have the most effect. Even then, there might not be more than a 1.5 mpg difference between running 4.10s and 3.42s.

      “The reason we [manufacturers] offer the 3.42 and 3.55 ratios is those ratios give the best fuel economy with a four-speed automatic transmission. If you want a truck that responds best to a heavy load or towing a trailer, then 3.73, 3.92, or 4.10 ratios will provide the best wheel torque at those lower engine speeds.”

      Lower axle ratios also provide better zip up to about 60 mph, the point at which horsepower becomes the contributing acceleration factor.

      As for general fuel economy, Clark says, “The best fuel economy for a truck is when cruising at 40 mph. Aerodynamic drag from the truck’s frontal area, not the gear ratio, is the major contributing factor in reduced fuel economy.

      “The EPA test cycle for highway mileage averages 48 mph, with a top speed of 60 mph. Say a pickup is rated at 21 mpg. Drive at a 10-percent higher average speed (53 mph), and drag causes that fuel number to fall about 1.5 mpg.

      “Increase speed another 10 percent (60 mph), and mileage will drop another 1.5 mpg. Run 70 mph, and now fuel economy is 14 mpg instead of 21 mpg.””

      http://www.trucktrend.com/news/163-0406-buying-truck/

      • 0 avatar
        Scoutdude

        Gearing absolutely does affect MPG but not always in the manner you would expect. At one time I had 2 Panthers, 1 with the standard for the year 3.08 rear axle ratio and the other with the HPP package that gives you a 3.23 ratio. In local freeway driving the 3.23 car returned better mpg consistently. There are a lot of hills in my area so the fact was that the 3.23 car would pull the hill in OD while the 3.08 car would have to kick out of OD to maintain speed up the same hills.

      • 0 avatar
        krhodes1

        Makes perfect sense for a 5000lb vehicle with the frontal area and aerodynamics of a small barn. Gearing isn’t going to make much difference pushing that lot through the air. Not really applicable to a car though.

        BMW played with this in the ’80s with the “Eta” series of cars, the 325e and 528e. Engine tuned for maximum low end torque, sky high gearing. Returned impressive highway numbers for the day. Saab was very good at this too, with the lpt 9-5s being particularly efficient on the highway. Medium-small four with turbo tuned for low end torque, slippery aerodynamics, and tall gearing.

        Even my BMW wagon does not fall off anywhere near as much with increasing speed as you might think. It can do 30mpg or so at 65mph average here in the US, but still did 25mpg at 105mph average with quite a bit of time at 130mph in Germany.

        • 0 avatar
          rpn453

          I suspect a lower drag vehicle will operate most efficiently at a higher speed than a truck, but is it really much higher? Do you have any information to suggest it’s anywhere near 75 mph?

          Even a C6 Z06 achieves its optimal fuel economy at around 40 mph: 36.5 mpg at 820 rpm. At 75 mph, it was 25.8 at 1640.

          http://ecomodder.com/forum/showthread.php/tested-speed-vs-mpg-2008-corvette-z06-505-a-9841.html

          Car and Driver saw 37.9 mpg at 55 mph in a E90 BMW 330i, but only 29.7 at 75 mph.

          http://www.caranddriver.com/columns/driving-for-fuel-economy

          Regardless of the vehicle, aerodynamic drag increases by 86% going from 55 mph to 75 mph. It’s hard to believe any car is slippery enough to overcome that difference.

        • 0 avatar
          VolandoBajo

          Panthers are 4000 pound cars +/-, not 5000 pound cars.

          And I have read of many Panther owners reporting that going to a numerically higher rear end ration increased rather than decreased their mpg.

          It’s a shame that Ford didn’t figure that out in advance and just put 3.23 rear ends in them.

    • 0 avatar
      raph

      Aerodynamics plays a big role in fuel economy at those speeds, even if the vehicle is geared appropriately the power to overcome the aerodynamic resistance offsets the savings through reduced engine speed.

      If I remember correctly vehicle aero minimally effects a car until you pass 45 mph then it starts to increasingly effect fuel economy (hence why it’s more effcient to keep the windows down below 45 mph and above that .ore effcient yo run the AC)

      Gearing of course helps but cars and trucks can only offer so much spread from low to high gear and a numerically low final drives saps performance which has the unintended consequence of forcing more aggressive throttle input.

      By way of example my 09 Shelby has 500 pound feet of torque from about 2000 rpm right up to its 6500 rpm red line and eventually peaks at 575 pound feet. Even conservatively geared and with fairly moderate throttle input the car pulls very well off the line ( literally a car you could drive using only 3rd – 6th gears ) and well up until a kid hit me head on almost a month ago and totaled my 2015 GT I found that having used the Shelby as a daily driver over the course of six years caused me to inadvertently drive the GT more aggressively as I subconsciously tried to match the diesel like torque on the Shelby and the better acceleration the Shelby offered at relatively modest throttle input.

      The upshot being I didn’t get nearly as good in town economy as I could have because I subconsciously tried to achieve the same rate of acceleration in the GT as I do in the GT500.

    • 0 avatar
      DukeGanote

      NOBODY should really care about 75-mph fuel economy for two simple reasons: rural interstates only account for about 10% of vehicle-miles-traveled, and city stop-and-go wastes more fuel than freeway flow. 75 vs 55 basically means an extra Starbucks stop on a vacation journey for my family of four — Starbucks chews up any fuel-cost savings by crawling at 55-mph. 75-mph it is!

  • avatar
    jdogma

    His beef about the Corvair was due to the swing axle suspension on the early models. Regular swing axle suspension has a tendency to jack the rear up, making the rear track narrower in the process and adding lots of positive camber at the same time. The 3 things combine to make rollovers likely. I read the book when it came out and my question was, and still is, why did he pick on the Corvair when VW had the same suspension,and due to their narrower track, rolled even easier. VWs outsold Corvairs by a huge margin. I had the pleasure of rolling one myself and was ejected from the sunroof in the rollover of a VW bus driven by someone else.

    • 0 avatar
      Jeff Weimer

      GM was a far, far bigger target than VW, and domestic to boot.

      • 0 avatar

        Actually, Ralph Nader and his Center for Auto Safety did target Volkswagen for safety problems. They devoted not a chapter, but an entire book to the topic. “Small – On Safety” charged that the Beetle (Type I) had caused “the deaths and injuries of thousands of people” and that the Type II microbus was even worse — “by a wide margin the most dangerous four-wheel vehicle of any type designed for highway use and sold in significant numbers.” Fortunately or unfortunately (depending on your point of view), the book was not published until September 1972, six years after “Unsafe at Any Speed”. By that point, Volkswagen had already made a couple of major improvements to the Beetle’s rear suspension, first by installing Z-bars to tame the swing axles and then going with double-jointed axle shafts in 1968 or thereabouts. Furthermore, Volkswagen was getting ready to make the switch to front wheel drive, so beating on the Beetle was not as sensational as beating on the Corvair.

    • 0 avatar
      JMII

      What really made the Corvair dangerous (per my father who owned one) was they caught fire very easily. A more modern version, the Fiero, also had this problem due to the rear engine configuration. So it would seem only VW and Porsche knew how keep an engine cool back there… and ironically they did it via just air and not water.

      The real problem with Corvair (from what I’ve gathered) is the handling issues that arise from the weight in the back. When you start losing control of a car your natural reaction is to slow down, but this pins the front down thus making the rear end immediate break lose (weight transfer effect). Then like a pendulum all that weight in the back creates a huge amount of momentum. Next thing you know the vehicle oscillates and you are spinning out of control. I assume older VWs never had such issues because there wasn’t enough power to get the darn thing out of shape in the first place.

      • 0 avatar
        namstrap

        Back in the mid to late seventies, I worked in a VW parts department. There was a body shop right next door, and they got most of the VW repair work in the area. At one time (’50s and ’60s) they kept a roof for a beetle in stock! It wasn’t until 1967 that they made some changes in the rear axle to control the swing, and then in 1968 they did an independent suspension with CV joints.
        I must say, after having owned three beetles of different years, I never experienced end swapping unless it was deliberate – out playing on the ice.

      • 0 avatar
        Ko1

        As a Corvair owner, most of the engine fires I’ve read about and heard of from older mechanics were caused by improper maintenance (even back in the day) and parts deterioration. The newest ‘Vair is still 46 years old after all. Another problem is that there’s so much sheetmetal covering the engine that you can easily miss an oil leak which is another source of fire. My ’66 Monza also has that stupid aftermarket single 4bbl manifold on it. A leaky carb would drop gas into the spinning cooling fan. Needless to say, I keep a decent fire extinguisher between the front seats at all times!

        The Pontiac Fiero, on the other hand, those fires were GM’s fault. A combination of poorly cast connecting rods and flat out the WRONG DIPSTICK (and oil amount in the service literature. 3L instead of the correct 4.5L) meant that a low oil level could cause a rod to break and go through the block, showering hot oil onto the exhaust manifold.

        • 0 avatar

          Motor oil has a high flash point, so it will smoke rather than ignite when it drips on the outside of an engine. The high flash point is the reason engines don’t go on fire internally, even though there is plenty of vaporized motor oil and air swirling around inside the crankcase of a running engine.

      • 0 avatar
        05lgt

        As someone who lived through the 60s and 70s, VWs, especially the vans, were pretty good at catching fire. Even with the big oil cooler boxes on the sides.

      • 0 avatar
        turf3

        No, Corvair engine fires are rare. Also, I have driven, and driven hard, many Corvairs with the swing axle rear suspension; and have never experienced anything more serious than a small tendency to oversteer.

        By the way, any car with semi-trailing arm rear suspension, and this is a lot of them, has a version of swing axle geometry, just that the effective pivot point is further from the wheel. Also, no one ever mentions the many thousands of mid 60s to mid 70s Mercedes sedans with rear swing axles.

        The real real problem with the Corvair was that they couldn’t stuff ever more enormous V8s in it like they did with the Mustang, Chevy II, and Camaro. So it ended up being the wrong car for the times when the horsepower race of the late 60s got under way.

      • 0 avatar

        I can’t imagine why a rear engine car would catch fire more easily than a front engine car. As for Corvairs in particular, most (except the high performance models) have two carburetors instead of one, so there are twice as many fuel line connections. This may increase the odds of a back yard mechanic forgetting to tighten one, but that’s a real stretch!

        • 0 avatar
          Fred

          The problem for VW, was a leaky fuel line that is close to the distributor. What made the fire really spectacular was the magnesium case. Early Porsche had the same problem.

    • 0 avatar
      VolandoBajo

      I missed the ejection part, put had one, a Type I, roll over on me in a turn on a high crown country road, when the rear wheels tucked under.

      After that, up until I stopped buying VW’s, the first thing I did for them was put antisway bars on them. Cost less than $200 to do it both front and rear back in the day, and made them handle much better.

      I’ve heard the same was true for Corvairs fitted with antisway bars.

  • avatar
    CobraJet

    Driving 55 on the interstates was just mind-numbing. It caused me to start using a radar detector. Once the law changed, I never felt the need for one any more.

    • 0 avatar
      indi500fan

      Ohio used 55 as a state cash flow booster. And unfortunately in the 80s I did a LOT of interstate driving through Ohio.

    • 0 avatar
      Fred

      Nice thing about the 55 speed limit was that my 40hp bug wasn’t as slow as it use to be.

      • 0 avatar
        jim brewer

        For the people out west,the 55 mph limit was just excruciating.

        It’s a subtle thing, but having ordinary people constantly looking for ways to violate the law for hours on end just to get on down the road is a corrosive thing to society.

        GM deserved everything that they got with the Corvair. It’s too bad, because it was an extraordinarily good looking, innovative car.

        • 0 avatar
          George B

          This! As a child, the 55 mph speed limit taught me the difference between law as written and law as enforced. It’s much easier to nullify a law with lax enforcement and widespread disobedience than doing the hard work to change a law. Before the national speed limit was repealed, I used a radar detector and watched for hidden police cars. After the national speed limit was repealed and speed limits went up, highway driving became more relaxed. I haven’t used a radar detector in decades.

      • 0 avatar
        Kendahl

        I had a both a 40 hp bug and a 53 hp one. Top speed for the 40 was 80 mph. For the 53, it was 90. Either one was fast enough to get you an expensive speeding ticket in the days of 55.

  • avatar
    Drzhivago138

    Over on CC there’s been discussion on this, but mostly on how UAAS changed automotive safety requirements (with predictable outcomes on the prevailing opinion).

    On all highways I go 62 for optimal MPG; on all interstates, 72.

  • avatar
    pdieten

    I seem to remember the pre-1974 speed limits in this state as 65 day/55 night.

    Given some of the hopeless junk on the road in the ’70s, on crappy narrow rural state highways, I think if I’d been driving at the time I wouldn’t have had the nerve to go over 55 in a lot of places….

    In a luxury car on the interstate, 55 was miserable.

    • 0 avatar
      ttacgreg

      Without researching it, I remember reading that the interstates were engineered with parameters that made today’s highway speeds doable for the less capable midd-century vehicles.

  • avatar
    Pch101

    “After the NMSL was enacted, highway fatality rates indeed went down. Part of that may have been due to lower speeds, but it was also possibly due to people driving fewer miles”

    A reduction in mileage can explain a reduction in the total number of fatalities, but it does not explain a decline in the fatality **rate** per mile.

    A possible explanation is that the gas crunch reduced the amount of holiday travel, which would have reduced the number of high occupancy vehicles on rural highways. A crash involving a car with several occupants has the potential to kill more people than a car without passengers.

    • 0 avatar
      SunnyvaleCA

      >>> A reduction in mileage can explain a reduction in the total number of fatalities, but it does not explain a decline in the fatality **rate** per mile. <<<

      Congested highways are dangerous highways (assuming people just tailgate more on contested highways). Less use of the highways could reasonably reduce per-mile accidents as well as overall number of accidents.

      Also, when the 55 went into affect people might have used secondary streets more since they were relatively faster than the now-slow highways. This would reduce congestion on the highways (safer highways) but push more people to the secondary streets, which are historically much more dangerous per mile due to side street traffic, no dividers, the occasional bicycle, no fences to keep the deer off, etc.

    • 0 avatar
      ttacgreg

      There is also a very closely correlated traffic fatalities being lower during recessions and higher when the economy is doing well. The 1974 recession was a nasty one because OPEC forced a 10x increase in the price of oil overnight, as well as cutting off supplies for a few months in 1973 in retaliation for the West’s support of Israel in the 1973 arab-Israeli war.

      • 0 avatar
        Pch101

        Fatalities decline during recessions because driving decreases.

        In 1974, driving decreased by 2.5% but fatalities fell by 16%, which is why the 55 mph limit received so much attention.

  • avatar
    Hank

    1995 was only 20 years ago. Whew! Thought I had a Rip Van Winkle moment for a second there.

  • avatar
    SaulTigh

    I still remember the glorious day I pulled onto I35 north of Kansas City and saw that 70 mph sign for the first time. I had never known a speed limit so high, and when I was young pretty much all cars had 55 in a special color or font on their speedometers.

    I’ll give some credit to Nader in that he had a part in actually making manufacturers and government types actually think about safety. My first car was from model year ’78 and in the intervening year’s I’ve had a ’90, ’93, ’94, ’95, ’96, ’08, ’14 and now a 2015 model vehicle and each has been progressively safer. Currently my stable consists of the ’95, ’14 and ’15, and the difference between the ’95 and the ’15 is astounding. And the ’95 was a SAFE car in those days–dual front airbags, 4 wheel discs with anti lock, shoulder belts all around.

    I think I read recently that after decades of decline that fatalities are starting to creep up due to inattention caused by personal electronic devices, not the ever increasing safety of the vehicles. Sad.

  • avatar
    Scoutdude

    I remember the glorious days of the R&P speed limit and even before that in Montana. My wife’s grand parents were still alive and they lived in North Dakota so that meant an annual trip back there for the family reunion. It was great to just set the cruise on 95mph and go. One time I followed a state trooper for about 2hrs before he pulled off. Cruise at 95mph for several hours and when you hit the construction areas or pull into a town doing 50mph seemed like you were walking.

    Even before the limit was removed Montana had a no enforcement policy. I passed many a state trooper during that time. They would normally run in the left lane at about the speed limit. So the procedure was to spot them up ahead, slow down to about 5mph above the limit and approach. As you got close they would move to the right. Then pull up along side them let them “profile you” and after the nod kick the speed back up to ~5mph over and once you had a 1/4 mi or so gap on them kick the speed back up to 75mph or so. Even if you didn’t follow common courtesy and they did pull you over the fine was very minimal, like $25, from what I understand since I was never pulled over. It was officially for “wasting resources” or something like that so it in theory didn’t go on your driving record as a traffic offense from what I heard.

    Now after they repealed the R&P they got tough on enforcing the 75mph limit with the troopers now out doing radar in groups.

    • 0 avatar
      stuki

      Now, the only upside of Montana speed enforcement, is that they have 75 even on smaller, windier roads, and there are still judges and troopers who feel a bit above just harassing people for the heck of it, or because the feds request it. Still haven’t been able to figure out if the decline in decency is due to a significantly increased share of total trooper pay/benefits is indexed to ticketing revenue, due to the Fed sponsored invasion of the Rockies over the past few decades, or just because of general gerontrification; as in, “darnit Mae, if I’m too old and reduced to feel comfortable above wheelchair pace, I’m gonna do my best to prevent anyone else from doing so, too…”

    • 0 avatar
      Kendahl

      I read that the fine was $5, payable to the trooper on the spot. Supposedly, people kept a few $5 bills for that purpose next to their registration and insurance card.

      The current 75 mph limit was imposed after judges began throwing out reckless driving charges based solely on a speed of 100 mph.

      • 0 avatar
        Scoutdude

        I heard that too, payment in cash to the trooper or ride to the nearest judge right then.

        • 0 avatar
          VolandoBajo

          In Florida I once went to a rural county to pay off a speeding ticket before the court date.

          Wanted to pay with a check. The desk clerk said no checks. I said why not. Said it might bounce.

          My reply was that if I didn’t want to pay them, why would I drive 150 miles round trip to give them a bad check, thus causing me to have not only a speeding charge, but also a bad check charge.

          He must have had a bit of sympathy for my youth combined with the distance I travelled.

          He sent me back to talk to the sheriff who said the same thing, the check might bounce.

          And I gave him the same reply. After some thought, he decided it wouldn’t cut that much into the cash payments his department received, and controlled. So he made an exception for me based on the distance I had gone to make sure that they got my payment.

          But it made me think about why they had a strong preference for cash payments even though bad checks wouldn’t help anyone with an outstanding ticket.

          That was where I first understood the principle of follow the money.

          If it was going somewhere else, he wouldn’t have cared. So it must have been staying in the Sheriff’s office, in some sense of that phrase or another.

  • avatar
    RideHeight

    Staying baked made 55 just fine, thanks.

    I haven’t smoked weed for 30 years but, magically, aging has produced much the same equanimity for right-lane tootling.

  • avatar
    spamvw

    I tell people I’m a one issue voter, after you see them cringe, you can tell what they’re thinking, but I tell them it’s the speed limit. I voted for Uncle Ronnie because he said he would raise of speed limit and he did. I just drove all over the southwest of the country at 80 miles an hour and got 32 MPG. (TDI) So perhaps we have some stuff to look forward to in the future. Instead of all those over 55 tickets in my past.

  • avatar
    namstrap

    Didn’t they limit the speedos to something like 85 back then?

    • 0 avatar
      Kendahl

      Yes, they did. Blame Jimmy Carter and Joan Claybrook. That didn’t mean cars couldn’t go faster. With enough horsepower, you could wind the needle around to the 0 mph pin. It was called making zero the hard way.

    • 0 avatar
      VolandoBajo

      Someone wrote on here a while back that they thought it was a national law that they were limited. I rebutted and refuted that, as my 88 Thunderbird Sportcoupe had a 140 or 150 mph speedo, and I had had a chance to clock Ford’s claim of a 143 mph top end. Surprisingly accurate, to less than 1% error.

      And the car was stock, right out of a dealer’s showroom. No special ordering, or such. Just a very non-85mph speedo and a lot more ponies under the hood than was advertised, and a lot faster than the supposedly faster turbo Bird of that year.

      Only variance from standard config was I insisted that they put a set of cast aluminum wheels on it, even though they only came on another model of the Bird.

      Once did some work with a DOT signage group. They let me make a sign to see how they operated, as part of my analysis for a new system.

      Since the Bird came stock with Goodyear Eagles speed-rated to 138mph, with my warped sense of humor, I made a sign for the back window that said “Warning: do not operate over 138mph with stock tires installed”.

      I loved that car…wish I had kept it. My Panther (97 Mercury) is a nice riding touring machine, but the Bird was pure joy to drive…better all around than even the Mustangs of that era. You might not agree, but I drove them both, and I could have had the Mustang, but passed for the Bird.

      • 0 avatar
        krhodes1

        The 85mph speedo law/reg was long gone by the time your T-bird was built. Repealed in the early ’80s. Probably ’82 or so. My ’82 Subaru had the 85mph speedo, my ’84 Jetta GLI did not (120mph). IIRC for VW ’84 was when they went back to the higher numbers, pretty sure my buddy’s ’83 GTI still had the stupid 85mph version. My favorite were the cars that had the full range speedo, but only numbered to 85 – IIRC Ford did that on their hotter cars. The requirement for a highlight at 55 lasted longer – that didn’t go away until after the 65mph limit came back. Maybe not until the early 90s.

        My favorite goofy safety law (that I actually agree with) was the ONE YEAR requirement of seatbelt/starter interlocks. No seatbelt, no start. Repealed after a single model year due to threat of wholesale congressional lynching. Was ’74 – I made real money selling the relevant bits from my ’74 Spitfire to someone doing a concourse restoration who needed them. I can only imagine that the state of the art in car electrics in ’74 combined with the general apathy towards seatbelts made that one a, ahem, non-starter…

  • avatar
    ttacgreg

    The latter years of the ’55 made me realize that bad law just might be worse than no law at all. The utter lack of lane discipline, coupled with the tendency to move like a herd of antelope at extra legal speeds to make it harder for the predator to pick you out for his dinner (er, traffic ticket), combined with the law abiders, and those who wanted to go faster than the herds, well it sucked.
    I do think the lack of lane discipline today may well just be a cultural hangover from the days of herding behavior in the ’55 era.
    I remember it being construed as patriotic to go ’55.
    Then Joan Claybrook and the NHTSA jumped in and added their overly simplistic ideology supporting lower speeds. Their whole force the dumbing down of everyone to the lowest common denominator philosophy did more to fuel the Right Winger in me more than anything else. I remember them squawking about how repealing the law would result in thousands of extra deaths per year, while conveniently ignoring the fact that by the mid 80’s speeding on the Interstates was practically universal. How is a law no one complies with in any way effective or living up to its intent?
    Special mention to Representative Howard of New Jersey who held out for a few years preserving this idiotic law, may he not rest in peace. His absolutist, non reality based ideology was just as bad as many absolutists on the Right are today. Rigid extremism is dysfunctional.
    13 years of stupidity.

    But I rant . . . . .

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    “The Law We Can Live With.” – wow such enthusiasm.

    Currently the speed I drive is dependent on what I’m driving. I’ve found that my V6 Highlander will cruise at extra legal speeds with ease, however the fuel economy drops steeply at over 82 mph.

    The old F150 isn’t happy at much over 65 mph and until it gets restored I won’t take my 67 Mustang over 65 mph.

    • 0 avatar
      stuki

      “Currently the speed I drive is dependent on what I’m driving”

      “The old F150 isn’t happy at much over 65 mph”

      Which pretty clearly demonstrates why car buyers in Germany tend to choose cars based on very different criteria than their counterparts in America. If Nader had his way, the average US commuter vehicle, would likely be a Winnebago by now.

      The whole “legally mandated mediocrity” American speed enforcement encourages, hasn’t exactly done Detroit any favors, either.

      • 0 avatar
        VoGo

        The rules are the same for everyone in the US. GM, Chrysler and Ford got mediocre because of terrible, inbred management.

        • 0 avatar
          stuki

          Terrible, inbred management is endemic everywhere. The Pieches, Porsches and Quandts in Germany are, like, literally, inbred.

          It’s not accidental that the most consistently dynamically excellent cars, originate in the area of the world with the least ridiculous speed enforcement.

    • 0 avatar
      dal20402

      Yeah, vehicles are drastically different. My Lexus LS, with slick underbody fairings and a super-tall top gear, gets its best fuel economy between 65 and 70 mph, and doesn’t really start to drop MPG until ~80. My Forester, shaped like a brick and with a Jurassic 4-speed auto, gets its best fuel economy around 40-45 mph and totally tanks above 65. Get to 80 mph and you are below 20 MPG. The feel reflects the numbers, too. On a straight open rural interstate I’ll cruise at 80+ in the Lexus and about 70 in the Fozzy, just because that’s where they seem happiest.

  • avatar
    krhodes1

    The 55mph speed limit was partially repealed almost 10 years before ’95 when 65mph limits were allowed on “rural interstates”.

    I was a senior in high school in ’87 when the limit was raised in Maine on nearly all of I-95, I-295, I-495, and the Maine Turnpike. Maine finally raised the highway limits beyond 65mph a couple years ago, now 70/75. And lightly enforced at that.

    One thing not mentioned here was that the feds tried to tie highway money to compliance with the ridiculous speed limits, which is what resulted in the rigorous enforcement in many places. There is absolutely no comparison of the level of traffic enforcement today in Maine vs. 25 years ago. Today I can go months without seeing a state cop actively doing traffic enforcement on I-295, whereas when I got my license in ’86 it was unusual to not see at least one cop staking out that road every time I drove on it.

    What I always found hilarious back then was that US Rt 1 paralleled I-295 through Falmouth and Cumberland Maine, and both roads had the same 55mph speed limit. Today, that stretch of Rt 1 is 45/50mph and I-295 is 70mph.

    • 0 avatar
      VolandoBajo

      You are right about tying the highway money to speed enforcement. The Feds (NHTSA) used to mandate a couple of compliance testing periods a year. The Feds would check to see what the speed distribution was. If you didn’t manage to keep 85% of the vehicles at or below the speed limit, your state had to go scratch.

      If you knew about that and knew how to find out when those periods were in advance, you could save a lot of speeding tickets, as enforcement was always much stricter from just before the periods until they were over. Before, because they wanted to slow everyone down before the measurements began.

  • avatar
    tylanner

    Ralph Nader cannot possibly get enough praise for how effective he was at instilling needed change. The shift toward goodness that his advocacy wrought may be the single greatest unmasking of unfettered capitalism.

    • 0 avatar
      VolandoBajo

      @tylanner Are you a troll, a relative of his, or just blind? He did more than anyone else of his time to instill a fear of innovative engineering in Detroit, and almost singlehandedly ushered in the Era of Malaise in US automaking.

      May you ride off into the sunset in a 70’s era small Chrysler, or maybe a Cadillac Cimarron. Just think how Cadillac capitalism was fettered into producing that noble experiment in downsizing. That really forced GM into a socially beneficial position, didn’t it?

      The main reason Nader gave VW a pass even though they had a worse camber problem was that he had a lawyer’s instinct for deep pockets.

  • avatar
    Jerome10

    Only being early 30s myself I barely remember the 95 repeal.

    I just know my mother said cruising at90 in Michigan when she first learned to drive was no problem.

    Unfortunately I think the worst leftovers from this Era are still too low speed limits, and draconian enforcement and the insurance rate jackings for “dangerous” speeding. That is the joke.

    I’ve tried to do a few minutes research on limit history. I guess a lot of states went back to the pre 55 limits. But then I think to myself, how capable was a 70s car at 70/75mph vs today? I really believe 85-90 as a limit would be more appropriate in rural areas. Saves a lot of time and good cars can handle it while most will probably drive about 80. Avoids falling asleep, silliness of police resources on speeding, reduced insurance rates etc etc.

    Also I don’t understand the logic in a few areas. For example Montana. 75 on interstates. 70 on 2 Lane roads. 75 is too slow. 70 I feel is too fast even in my old GTI.

    Idaho had some similar ones. 65 on US95 then get on an interstate that was 70. Changed a bit now but point is still there… 5mph difference from narrow 2 Lane to divided 4 Lane interstate is too little difference. And safety wise you want people on interstates, not 2 lanes.

    Limits still need to go up. Fortunately I think we’re slowly seeing some movement in Texas, Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho. Hopefully results are positive and it catches on.

    • 0 avatar
      Scoutdude

      You have to keep in mind that what we now know as the interstate system was originally called the National Interstate and Defense Highway System. And the initial design standards were for vehicles of the 50’s with the thought that vehicles of the 60’s and beyond would be capable of much higher speeds.

      As a kid I once took a trip to CA from KS with my cousin’s family. We were rolling in their 70 Olds Delta 88. My 3 cousins, aunt, uncle, grand mother and me. Yes 7 of us with all the attendant luggage in the trunk. Once we hit Nevada which had no speed limits at the time we were cruising at 100mph for a while. I still remember standing up in the back see that speedo needle at the 100mph mark or over. I do have to wonder what would have happened had a tire let go at that speed. I have to think the tires were at or over their load limit with the 7 of us in the car and the trunk stuffed full.

      I’ve also ran my 69 LeSabre wheel drum brakes and all at 75mph and it handled it w/o problem and the sight lines were more than adequate to stop the vehicle if necessary.

      • 0 avatar
        VolandoBajo

        I used to work for a cable TV company with installations all over north Florida, and as a supervisor, one of my percs was to be able to lease a tricked out rental vehicle.

        King Car Rentals, which I think was later found out to be buying and renting out stolen cars, had a lot of unique iron. I ended up with a Pontiac Firebird with a large V8 and a Hurst floor shifter (manual, of course).

        Back before the 55, we would run 4 lane divided highways in rural areas as fast as we could.

        I once had a left front tire blowout around 90. If anyone wants to make a federal case out of that, perhaps it was kph, not mph. But I doubt it.

        Had to fight the wheel to maintain control, but it never even left my lane, much less walked into the neighboring lane or onto the apron.

        But I did stop for a coffee break after I got the tire swapped. Fortunately, that was back in the day when all cars had a full sized spare, so I was back on the road in about fifteen minutes.

        If you have enough upper body strength to wrestle with the wheel, there is no reason to fear a high speed blowout, other than the fact that you will get a shot of adrenaline the likes of which you will seldom get to experience.

    • 0 avatar
      Kendahl

      I used to visit the Detroit area on business twenty years ago. Detroiters knew what the accelerator pedal was for. I remember running 85 mph just to keep up with traffic.

  • avatar
    VelocityRed3

    As someone who graduated High School in 1985 & attended my 30th year reunion earlier this year, I would like to say that 1995 was not 30 years ago. That is all.

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    That whole time in the ’70s was very interesting from an outside perspective. We have the benefit of hindsight and also the ability to condense time into major highlights. Being born at the end of the ’70s means I got to miss all of it and I believe I am glad I did.

    • 0 avatar
      Kendahl

      The 1970s were interesting in the sense of the old Chinese curse. I consider it to have been the worst decade since the 1930s. In addition to the petroleum issue, pessimists predicted that we were about to run out of most of the strategic materials necessary to maintain a technologically advanced society. I remember some black humor in the form of advice to new graduates, “Get yours while there’s still some left.” The subsequent 40 years have given me the opportunity to see how shortsighted the pessimists were. It’s my personal opinion that their predictions were 10% logical extrapolation of existing data and 90% wishful thinking because, deep down, they feel guilty about living a good life instead of a miserable one. I see a lot of the same thinking in the current global warming squabble. Once more, the pessimists argue that we must sacrifice our standard of living rather than do some smart engineering.

      • 0 avatar
        VolandoBajo

        Pop music of the 70’s was nothing to write home about either.

        And then there were the gas shortages. In NYC that meant stations selling out of gas, long lines, long waits, and frequently ending up with residue in your fuel. Fortunately, I could tear down and rebuild the carb in my Rabbit in about twenty minutes, after having had to do it a few times.

        But the rebuild in temperatures in the twenties, on Christmas Eve, in Manhattan, by the light of a hotel marquee, was the most memorable one of those rebuilds.

        The doormen brought me a couple of cups of coffee while I worked, and were taking bets on whether it would run when I was through, and how long it would take.

        The guys who bet I’d win, also won. And the guys who took the under, also came out winners. And I got home early enough to go out for a late dinner before all the good restaurants shut down for the night, though it was tough to find one that late that night. I have blocked out most of the rest of the memory of that night, but I think we must have done a Chinatown run that night. That was good any night of the year, all the way up to dawn.

        The Seventies rotted, for a whole lot of reasons.

      • 0 avatar
        Brine

        Hindsight is of course helpful, but still an excellent parallel with the climate-saving thing. It’s about control, innit?

    • 0 avatar
      TMA1

      Plus, we got the best Saturday-morning cartoons and the golden era of 8-bit gaming.

  • avatar
    TR4

    “While it didn’t precisely mandate a national 55 mph limit, the law allowed the federal government to withhold highway funds from states that didn’t lower expressway speed limits to 55, the so-called “double nickel.”

    I lived in New York state when this was going on. New York tried to do one “better” with a 50 mph limit. However the Feds would not tolerate this insubordination and threatened to withhold funds, so NY ended up changing the signs (again) to 55.

  • avatar
    rpol35

    As an interim step, I think Ronald Reagan signed legislation which raised the Federal 55 MPH limit to 65 MPH in 1987 before Clinton K.O.’d it in the ’90’s.

    As an aside, Ronnie also knocked out the 5 MPH bumper standard and the 85 MPH Jimmy Carter/Joan Claybrook inspired safety nanny speedometer in ’82, to be effective in the ’83 model year.

  • avatar
    reclusive_in_nature

    You glossed over Sammy Hagar’s contribution…

    • 0 avatar
      Thorshammer_gp

      Well-played.

    • 0 avatar
      VolandoBajo

      Sammy Hagar’s contribution was clearly greater than Ralph Nader’s.

      Nader almost singlehandedly ushered in the era of administrative law-making.

      Certainly the volume of administrative law took a quantum leap post-Nader.

      Maybe not post hoc, ergo propter hoc, but he certainly showed what you could accomplish from a governmental and/or judicial bully pulpit.

  • avatar
    TDIGuy

    Can’t speak for individual states, but I know that here in Ontario, safety advocates and the Minitry of Transportation point out that deaths dropped after the speed limit was reduced. This is countered by groups like stop100.ca with the fact they passed mandatory seatbelt legislation at the same time as reducing the speed limit.

    We are still stuck at 100km/h here (62mph), but it is rarely enforced. To the point that except for rush hour, when the traffic reports talk about the “normal travel time” (i.e. at the speed limit) between various points, the current average is always less.

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