Simanaitis Says

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DOUBLE-NICKEL TIDBITS

“THE DOUBLE-NICKEL,” grandpa explains, as he and the grandkids travel a pandemic-emptied freeway at 80, “was once the National Maximum Speed Limit, 55 mph.”

A grandkid says, “55? I drive 55 on the way to school. Uh, not in School Zones, of course, Grandpa.”

Here are tidbits on the National Maximum Speed Limit, as it existed in the U.S. from 1975 until its 1995 repeal. 

The 1973 Oil Crisis. The NMSL was precipitated by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. The oil crisis of 1973 was the first of OPEC’s embargoes, staged against countries perceived as having supported Israel during the short-lived Yom Kippur War, and short-lived it was: October 6-25, 1973.

Israel won the Yom Kippur War militarily; Israel and Egypt later made political gains in the subsequent 1978 Camp David Accords.

And OPEC got shirty: In late 1973, it instituted an oil embargo against Canada, Japan, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States; Rhodesia, South Africa, and Portugal were soon added to the list.

U.S. Happenings. Long lines, panic buying, and rationing ensued in the U.S. and elsewhere.  

Image by Flick/David Falconer from businessinsider.com.

As noted by Wikipedia, “Odd-even rationing allowed vehicles with license plates (or a [sans numbers] vanity license plate), to buy gas only on odd-numbered days of the month, while others could buy only on even-numbered days. In some states, a three-color flag system was used to denote gasoline availability at service stations—green for unrationed availability, yellow for restricted/rationed sales and red for out of stock.”

An Oregon gas station sign. Image by David Falconer from the National Archives and Records Administration.

Nixon’s 50/55 Mph. As an emergency measure on November 26, 1973, President Richard Nixon proposed a national 50-mph speed limit on passenger cars and a 55-mph limit for trucks and buses. Wikipedia notes, “Nixon partly based that on a belief that cars achieve maximum efficiency between 40 and 50 mph and that trucks and buses were most efficient at 55 mph.” 

However, this ignored the inherent hazard of speed differentials, a point made by the California Trucking Association, the largest trucking association in the United States, saying 50/55 was “not wise from a safety standpoint.”

The NMSL. A uniform National Maximum Speed Limit of 55 mph was established by Congress and signed by President Gerald Ford on January 4, 1975. It required a 55-mph speed limit on any four-lane divided highway in the U.S.; it capped speed limits at 55 mph on all other roads.

One curiosity of this was the New York State Thruway’s having to raise its limit, hitherto set at 50. Another was automakers’ highlighting the Double Nickel on speedometers.

Speedometer of a 1993 Ford Fiesta. Image by Dre Waters.

Hitherto, like many other aspects of motoring, speed limits had been state matters, not national ones. The NMSL, though, had a profound effect: Non-compliance would invoke a denial of federal highway funding. 

Personal Compliance. For many of us, fearing fines and insurance implications of a speeding ticket, 60 mph became the new 80. It might be attempted, but with a certain impunity, discretion, a careful eye, and a radar detector. (“What’s a ‘radar detector,’ Grandpa?” “I’ll tell you later; but you notice it’s not up on the windshield here in California…”)

A response to government campaigns promoting compliance. Image from CafePress.

Over time, personal non-compliance got worse and worse—or better and better from the driver’s point of view. Wikipedia reports, “In 1985, the Texas’s State Department of Highways and Public Transportation surveyed motorist speeds at 101 locations on six types of urban and rural roads. It found that 82.2% of motorists violated the speed limit on rural interstates, 67.2% violated speed limits on urban interstates, and 61.6% violated speed limits on all roads.”

States gradually lessened the implications of personal non-compliance: Nevada issued $5 “energy wasting fines” for breaking the Double Nickel at less than 70 mph. Transgressions up to 79 mph in North Dakota brought only a $15 fine and no license points. 

A Gradual Pedal to the Metal. Between 1987 and 1995, Congressional legislation eased matters with regard to rural Interstates, non-Interstate rural roads, and a moratorium on sanctions of federal funding. Finally, effective December 8, 1995, the National Highway System Designation Act of 1995 returned all speed limit matters back to the states.

NMSL and Mpg, in Retrospect. Authorities initially hoped that the NMSL would bring a 2.2-percent reduction in fuel consumption. In fact, Wikipedia notes, “In 1998, the Transportation Research Board footnoted an estimate that the NMSL reduced fuel consumption by 0.2 to 1.0 percent.”

What, grandkids, can we learn from this? ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2021

3 comments on “DOUBLE-NICKEL TIDBITS

  1. Mike B
    April 2, 2021

    There was a requirement (not sure if it was in law or some federal regulation) for 85mph max on speedometers during at least part of that period, too. Some cars met the intent of the law, with a speedometer face that was designed for 85 full-scale and a stop pin at that point. Others, Porsche was infamous) simply used their previous standard speedometer with a face plate that had no numbers past 85 but things were compressed normally up to that point with a big blank space afterward. Cute. Things were back to normal by the early 1980s.

  2. Bill
    April 3, 2021

    At 55 mph the Beast of Turin would be making about 430 engine rpm in high gear.
    I remember those 85mph speedos! Didn’t some have a red mark at 55?

    • Mike B
      April 5, 2021

      I think some did. My wife’s AMC Hornet, IIRC had 55 circled. The Rabbit Diesel speedometer may have gone above 85, but it didn’t matter; by test, downhill with a tailwind, it just touched indicated 75, but it could cruise all day on the level at 70 and get 50+ mpg doing it.

      Even now … the circle around my Chevy Bolt’s speedometer changes color to tell you how you’re driving. At 65 it turns yellow, at 70 red. If you don’t mind draining the battery quickly, it cruises just fine at 70+ though I don’t even try to keep up with the fast or carpool lanes.

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