According to a preliminary report from the U.S. Department of Transportation, "traffic fatality and injury rates remained at historic lows in 2001." This continues a downward trend in the highway fatality rate that extends back to at least 1988 — the earliest year examined in the report.

This wasn't supposed to be the case, if you believed the doomsayers who forecast mayhem for the nation's highways when the national speed limit was eased and then dropped in 1995. In a typical expression of such sentiments, Jerry Johns of the Southwest Insurance Information Service told CNN that "roads won't handle speeds of 75 and 80 miles per hour." He and his colleagues predicted 6,400 additional deaths per year from speed-crazed maniacs unleashed by loosened restrictions.

Even as we breathe a sigh of relief that Mr. Johns was mistaken, we can still wonder: Why have faster roads proven to be so much safer?

Actually, traffic around the U.S. is probably moving no faster than ever, no matter that 55 has become 65, 70 or 75 on many roads. One of the little-discussed secrets of highway engineers is that posted speed limits are thoroughly ineffective. They make politicians feel good and funnel revenue from traffic tickets to public coffers, but they do remarkably little to regulate the flow of traffic.

What? Am I saying that America is a nation of scofflaws?

You bet! Study after study shows that speed-limit signs do little more than clutter road shoulders — and provide a little target practice in rural areas.

A U.S. Department of Transportation study published in the mid-1990s, "Effects of Raising and Lowering Speed Limits on Selected Roadway Sections," found that changing posted speed limits altered the speed at which people actually drive on the road by less than 2 miles per hour. That small effect was said to be "not sufficiently large to be of practical significance, and … due primarily to large sample sizes."

The federal study found that the only thing that does change significantly to correspond with altered speed limits is the degree of compliance. High rates of compliance are achieved only by marking signs close to the speed at which drivers' choose to travel the road no matter what lawmakers want.

In a separate document, titled "Speed Limits — A Case of Majority Rule," the Arizona Department of Transportation notes that "[g]enerally speaking, traffic laws that reflect the behavior of the majority of vehicle operators are found to be successful, while laws that arbitrarily restrict the majority of drivers encourage wholesale violations."

Reflecting a commendable respect for reality, Arizona boasts that "[s]peed zoning in Arizona is based on the widely accepted principle of setting speed limits as near as practicable to the speed at or below which 85 percent of the drivers are traveling."

So we shouldn't be too surprised about declining highway fatalities in an era of eased speed limits, because speed limits never meant much to begin with.

But what if we flooded the highways with speed-obsessed highway patrol officers in an effort to force compliance? Wouldn't slower traffic mean safer roads?

Well … probably not. In fact, the Arizona paper goes on to warn that "speed in itself is not a major cause of accidents. In fact, there is a consensus of professional opinions that many speed-related accidents result from both excessively low and high speeds."

That's not just an American phenomenon either. The National Center for Policy Analysis points out that "no consistent correlation between speed enforcement and traffic safety improvement has been shown." The NCPA cites the safety record of Germany's Autobahn where, despite minimal speed enforcement, fatality rates are virtually identical to the much-patrolled U.S. interstate system, on which millions of speeding tickets are issued.

In fact, the NCPA goes on to warn that high-profile campaigns to enforce traffic laws — including speed limits — can actually boost the number of traffic accidents. So attempting to impose unreasonably low speed limits on defiant drivers may actually cause injuries and even cost people their lives.

The cost of speed limits can also be measured in dollars and cents. While politicians like to talk about lowering fuel costs by forcing people (or attempting to force people) to drive slower, they forget that those people may have places to go and things to do that don't involve a leisurely tour of the highways. And in a country as large as the United States, a lot of time can be spent covering long distances at low speed. For many people, time really is money.

How much money is that?

In a 1999 study that assumed that Americans were actually driving faster since the national speed limit was abandoned, Stephen Moore of the Cato Institute estimated that, "Americans have saved some 200 million manhours in terms of less time spent on the road. The net economic benefit of raising the speed limit has been between $2 and $3 billion a year."

Of course, as the U.S. department of Transportation has discovered, Americans aren't driving faster, because they never paid much attention to the old speed limit. Moore's estimate, then, gives us an idea of the costs Americans would have to shoulder were the professional worry warts to dream up a way to make us drive slower.

But nobody has yet come up with a way to make speed limits effective, and as the latest data shows, it's just as well. Driving pretty much as fast as they please, Americans are reaching their destinations in as timely a fashion as ever. And they're making their journeys on swiftly moving roads that are safer by the year.

J.D. Tuccille is a Flagstaff-based Senior Editor of The Henry Hazlitt Foundation's Free-Market.Net (http://www.free-market.net/).

— Arizona Daily Sun

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