National Commentary

The Peak Oil Crisis: On Slowing Down

As gasoline prices pass $4 per gallon and begin to eat away at our well-being and the fabric of our civilization, the realization is slowly growing that indeed there is something we can do — slow down. Currently this concept has less than zero traction in Congress. Recent polls show that, in overwhelming numbers, the American people

It is now 34 years since Congress passed the National Maximum Speed Law requiring states to establish a 55 mph speed limit as a condition for receiving federal highway funds. It is 21 years since the Congress permitted states to raise the speed limit to 65 mph on rural interstate highways and 13 years since states were given the authority to set any speed limits they like. After oil became plentiful again, lower speed limits were seen as a way to save lives by reducing the seriousness of accidents, but public clamor soon overcame concerns.

As the interstate system grew, and cars became faster and quieter, the “double nickel” limit came to be seen as an intrusion on people’s rights. Studies showed that by the early 1980’s 83 percent of the motorists on New York interstates were cruising above the posted limit. Speed limits soon became an ideological issue when the Heritage Foundation put out a report saying that speed limits were only saving trivial amounts of gasoline. In 1999, Cato Institute concluded that deaths from car accidents did not increase after the speed limits were raised and there was a net economic benefit of $2-$3 billion a year from everybody driving faster.

A review of comments on web sites advocating a return to the 55 mph limit suggests that the idea is vastly unpopular. Slowing down is not going to come easily.

The issue of course is not one of ideology, but of physics and economics. The resistance of the air to a moving vehicle increases roughly with the square of the speed. There are numerous factors besides drag such as vehicle weight, rolling resistance, and terrain gradient that go into determining an optimum speed for the best fuel economy. Studies from 30 years ago suggest that 35-40 mph might be the optimum speed for best economy while more recent studies on more current cars show 50-55 mph might be better. All studies, however, show that getting speed down from the current flow of 70-75 mph to 50-55 mph is going to be good for about a 20 percent fuel savings with the current vehicle fleet.

At any given time of course, most moving vehicles are not going with the 75 mph flow, but are stuck in traffic, waiting at traffic lights, and creeping around parking lots. Slowing down the Interstates and rural roads by 20 mph will not save much fuel in those massive suburban traffic jams called commuting. This, of course, is the heart of the argument against reducing speed limits. Excessive gasoline consumption should be a personal decision. “I paid for the gasoline and should be allowed to waste it by driving fast as much as I can afford.”

There is more to this story than personal freedoms however. Try driving at economical speeds on most interstates these days and you will quickly realize that you are a menace to your fellow motorists. It is only a question of time until somebody gets killed weaving around to avoid you. Going with, or close to, the flow becomes an act of kindness to our fellow motorists. The moral is that we are all going to have to slow down together – or not at all.

Our truckers, who bring us perhaps 70 percent of our food and other stuff, are being done in by the cost of diesel which is approaching $5 a gallon. Now I have no idea what the optimum speed for an 18 wheeler might be, but I suspect it is going to be well south of 60 mph, especially if the manufacturers adjusted the gear ratios a bit. Remember that 18 wheelers are most frequently found a few feet off your bumper on the Interstate and rarely stuck in a suburban traffic jam. We are going to need our trucks as our railroads are at capacity and will take decades to build more.

In Ontario, where they don’t fool around, they have already imposed a 100 kph (60 mph) speed limit on the 18 wheelers and have placed governors on their engines to keep errant drivers under control when the law isn’t around. The Canadians have saved so much on their fuel bills that the American Trucking Association now is proposing we do the same thing right here in America and institute a 65 mph speed limit. I doubt if they really want the governors on their engines, but they like the savings on the diesel bill.

Interestingly enough, the truckers want everybody else to slow down to 65 mph with them, presumably to avoid obscene gestures from the little four wheeler drivers who would otherwise have to spend the day passing them.

There will come a day in the not-too-distant future when it will become obvious that we have to save every last drop of motor fuel just to keep ourselves and our economy going. Even the most red-blooded American Congressman will swallow his love of freedom to go fast and vote to impose some sort of fuel-saving speed limit. We may have to wait until there are wide-spread shortages of motor fuel such as we had in 1973. However, as seems increasingly likely, lobbyists from diesel consuming industries may just convince some Congressional committee that slowing down is what it will take if we want to continue to eat.

I suspect that by the time Congress votes new speed limits, most drivers will get the idea and you won’t find 80+ percent breaking the law. If not, we could always sentence them to drive only cars with 55 mph governors for life.