It’s not difficult to see why public opinion today is shifting towards curtailing higher highway speed limits. From safety to fuel economy and environmental concerns, logical reasons mount against higher speeds on highways. A study by the US Department of Energy found that a highway speed limit reduction from 75 mph to 60 mph would increase fuel economy by 25 percent due to the lower wind resistance. Despite this information, I wouldn’t complain if the highway speed limit was increased.
However, Californians in the early 1960s would tell me there’s far more to speed limits than the number on the sign. In 1959, California passed a law establishing a maximum speed limit on the state’s highways at 65 mph. The state legally didn’t have a speed limit directly before this law, but the de facto recommended highway speed was 55 mph. The law was largely unpopular among California’s drivers and his influential opponents including the Automobile Club of Southern California.
The primary point of controversy was how the new speed limit was enforced. A letter to the editor published in the April 1960 issue of Road & Track perfectly describes the sentiment held by many of the state’s drivers. In the letter, Clive S. Liston of Mountain View, California lamented that the new speed limit was arbitrary. Under the previous system, a legally appropriate speed was determined on a case-by-case basis on various factors, from the vehicle’s performance capabilities to traffic and road conditions. Effectively, a driver could go as fast as they like within reason.
Liston added that “The more cynical are likely to treat the highway patrols as just another driving hazard to keep as check on.” Sixty years later, he was absolutely correct. When driving quickly on a highway in the United States, the focus isn’t on driving safely but not getting caught speeding. He felt that resources would be better spent reducing drunk driving and improving driver training and license testing.
Liston also claimed that those two improvements would reduce accidents by two-thirds. I couldn’t find any 1960s datasets to back up his claims, but data from 2020 might defend his argument. In their 2020 crash report, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that fatalities in drunk-driving incidents account for almost a third of all road deaths in the United States. Higher driving standards would naturally reduce the number of road fatalities, but it’s not clear by how much.
California’s highway administrator in 1960 claimed that the new speed limit law was only an experiment, but it has remained with only two notable divergences. In the mid-1960s, the state increased the speed limit on rural highways to 70 mph. Then, when the National Maximum Speed Law (55 mph) was implemented in 1974 and fully repealed in 1995. And while a massive effort has been made to reduce drunk driving, not much has been done about raising driving standards.