Speier seeks national speed limit to save gas

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Speier seeks national speed limit to save gas


Zachary Coile, Chronicle Washington Bureau

Friday, July 11, 2008

Congress is searching for ways to address rising gas prices, and one Bay Area lawmaker thinks she's found one: Lower the speed limit on highways.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, in her first bill as a member of Congress, is proposing a national speed limit of 60 mph for freeways in urban areas and 65 mph in less populated areas.
It's a throwback to the 1970s, when Congress and President Richard Nixon imposed a 55 mph national speed limit in response to the Arab oil embargo. While supporters say the law saved lives and fuel, it was unpopular with many drivers and some states balked at enforcing it. Congress repealed it in 1995.
But with the average price of gas at $4.10 per gallon nationwide and $4.60 in San Francisco, Speier said, reducing driving speeds could save families hundreds of dollars a year.
"There is no need to wait for OPEC or the oil companies to help us out," Speier said. "Every driver can effect change simply by easing up on their right foot."
The bill is already stirring objections from some motorist groups, which fear it would slow traffic and increase speeding tickets and insurance premiums. Opponents said the law isn't necessary because drivers already have the choice of reducing their speed to save gas.
"If they want to get in the right-hand lane and drive 55 mph on the highway, there is no restriction on that," said Jim Baxter, president of the National Motorists Association, a group formed in 1982 to repeal national speed limits. "They are welcome to do that."
But Speier said those who drive below the speed limit often find themselves "with someone breathing down your back fender." A national maximum speed limit would reduce the pace of traffic and result in greater fuel savings, she said.
No one disputes that driving slower saves money. Most cars are designed to get their best fuel economy at speeds of about 55 mph, but fuel efficiency starts falling at speeds higher than 60 mph.
The Web site run by the Energy Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, www.fueleconomy.gov, states that "you can assume that each 5 mph you drive over 60 mph is like paying an additional 30 cents per gallon for gas."
David Friedman, research director of the clean vehicles program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, estimates that by reducing speed from 70 to 60 mph, the owner of a midsize sedan would save about $200 a year and the owner of an SUV about $300, based on gas prices of about $4.50 per gallon.
Friedman's group has endorsed the bill as a way to reduce U.S. dependence on oil and cut greenhouse gas emissions, "and you can save money and lives at the same time," he said.
Speier isn't the only politician pushing the idea. Sen. John Warner, R-Va., sent a letter on July 3 to Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, asking him to study what speed limit offers the best fuel efficiency and whether the administration would support an effort in Congress to lower speed limits.
Warner cited a study by the Congressional Research Service that showed that the 1974 law - which set a national speed limit of 55 mph - saved 167,000 barrels of oil per day, 2 percent of U.S. highway fuel consumption.
"Given the significant increase in the number of vehicles on America's highway system from 1974 to 2008, one could assume that the amount of fuel that could be conserved today is far greater," he wrote.
Speier's bill is similar to the 1974 law, which threatened to withhold federal highway funds from states that refused to embrace the 55 mph speed limit. If a state refuses to comply under her bill, it would risk having its highway construction funds shifted to transportation safety and education projects. "It's a softer penalty," she said.
Many states objected to the 1974 law, and some states barely complied with it. Montana, which had no daytime speed limit before 1974, charged speeders a $5 fine, which was payable on the spot. Congress relented in 1987, allowing states to raise the limits to 65 mph on rural highways. After the GOP-led Congress repealed the law in 1995, several states raised speed limits in rural areas to 70 or 75 mph.
Critics of a national speed limit note that many drivers simply ignore it. A federal study in 1982 found that 83 percent of vehicles monitored on New York's interstate system were exceeding the 55 mph limit.
But the law's supporters point out that lower speed limits succeed in reducing fatalities on highways. A National Academy of Sciences study found that the 55 mph limit saved between 2,000 and 4,000 lives each year.
Judie Stone, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a coalition of consumer groups and insurance companies that opposed the repeal of the 55 mph speed limit, said her group is generally supportive of Speier's legislation.
"It's a good idea both for safety and for fuel conservation," Stone said.
But Michael Geeser, a spokesman for AAA of Northern California, which has 5 million members, said his group favors leaving decisions on speed limits to the states.
"The state limits should really be dictated by two things: engineering and enforcement," he said. "If the engineering of a road dictates that a speed limit should be set at a certain rate, that to us is the strongest evidence, as opposed to what (a driver) might save in gas mileage."
Ways to boost fuel economy
Even without lowering speed limits, experts suggest ways to change driving and car maintenance habits to cut your payments at the pump:
Drive more gently: Speeding and rapid acceleration and braking can reduce gas mileage by one-third on highways and 5 percent on city streets.
Remove excess weight: Getting rid of 100 pounds can improve mileage by 2 percent.
Stay tuned: A vehicle that is out of tune or fails an emission test can reduce mileage by 4 percent.
Check air filter: Replacing a clogged filter can boost mileage by 10 percent.
Check tire pressure: Keeping tires properly inflated can save at least 3 percent on mileage.
Use the right motor oil: Not using the recommended grade can cost you 1 to 2 percent on fuel economy.
Don't overload roof rack: On car trips, stacking items on top of your car can lower mileage by 5 percent.
Buy a fuel-efficient car: Replacing a car that gets 20 mpg with one that gets 30 mpg will save an average driver $1,020 per year.
Source: www.fueleconomy.gov
E-mail Zachary Coile at zcoile@sfchronicle.com.
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