Sometimes the citizens win, but it takes a while. During the oil crisis of the 1970s, the U.S. government was desperate to convince Americans to burn less gasoline. Realizing that cars are more fuel-efficient when driven at lower speeds, Congress decided to force people to drive slower. In 1974, it enacted a law that set the national speed limit at 55 mph, along with a threat: Any state that didn’t comply with the rule would lose its federal highway funding.
Congress may have set the speed limit, but it was up to individual states to enforce it and many states didn’t appreciate being bossed around. In fact, some states made a mockery of the law. Nevada, for example, refused to write tickets to speeders unless they were caught traveling more than 70 mph; instead, offenders received $5 “energy wasting” fines.
So, did the lowered speed limit actually accomplish its goal? While the law did slash petroleum consumption by 167,000 barrels per day, the savings represented a drop in demand of only about one. Highway fatalities also dropped with the lower speed limit, though some analysts have theorized that this reduction was the result of a general decrease in recreational driving rather than slower speeds.
Nonetheless, both state governments and average citizens whined about the law so much that Congress bumped up the speed limit to 65 mph in 1987, then did away with the law completely in 1995, putting speed limits back in the hands of the states, where it belongs.