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The Need to Speed: The U.S. Interstate and the German Autobahn

By: Jacob Weinstein



Were it not for the Interstate Highway System (IHS), driving to, from, and within regions of the continental United States would be a challenging endeavor. The pavement of the IHS was first laid when President Eisenhower signed the Federal Highway Act of 1954.[1] According to the lore, Eisenhower first envisioned the IHS as a strategic military asset during his reign in Europe as the commander of the Allied Forces. However, in reality, it is slightly more complicated.[2] 


Nowadays, the IHS boasts nearly 50,000 miles of road carrying more than half of all American truck traffic and trillions of dollars in goods.[3] The highway system is thus an essential part of American commerce, in addition to its importance for passenger travel.

 

Left to their own devices, drivers would likely turn highways into war zones littered with car debris. Thus, as early as 1901, states and localities began instituting speed limits to prevent automotive mayhem.[4]


At first, states were free to set their own speed limits, tending to fall between forty and eighty miles per hour (MPH).[5] Nevertheless, in 1974, President Nixon signed the Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act, creating a national fifty-five MPH speed limit. Interestingly, the bill’s primary purpose was not to increase safety. Instead, its goal was to save fuel. Following the 1973 oil embargo and ensuing oil crisis, energy conservation was necessary to prevent economic catastrophe.[6] Since vehicles operate more efficiently at fifty-five MPH than at higher speeds, limiting cars to fifty-five MPH could significantly reduce the nation’s fuel consumption.[7]


Needless to say, not all states were satisfied with the measures. To ensure states conformed to the measure, congress “requir[ed] states to certify drivers’ compliance with the fifty-five MPH limits or face cuts in their federal highway funds.”[8] Nonetheless, some states found creative means to undermine the federal limit without actually running afoul of the federal government’s requirements. In 1981, Nevada enacted a law requiring motorists clocked between fifty-five and seventy-five MPH merely pay a nominal five dollar “energy wasting” fine.[9] Other states, such as Texas, instead chose the route of lax enforcement.[10]


Following decades of challenges, the speeders ultimately emerged victorious in 1995 when President Clinton signed legislation repealing the federal fifty-five MPH speed limit[11] over the objections of environmentalists, consumer groups, and even the automotive community’s archnemesis, Ralph Nader, who called the bill’s passage “an act of unprecedented Presidential hypocrisy and cruelty.”[12] 

Later that year, Montana—a vast, sparsely populated state with 88,000 miles of highway—eliminated absolute, numerical daytime speed limits on its highways, adopting the “Basic Rule” requiring drivers maintain speed no greater than was “reasonable and proper under the conditions.”[13] 


The new law led to little change in driving habits by Montana’s citizens, though the state quickly became a “speed magnet” for out-of-state drivers. Nonetheless, the “aggregate mortality and morbidity rates on [Montana’s] Interstate highways … remained within historical fluctuating ranges.”[14]


In 1998, Rudy Stanko was clocked at eighty-five MPH in his well-maintained 1996 Camaro “on a clear day during daylight hours, on a dry road in rural Montana with no significant traffic in the area.”[15] He appealed his conviction to the Montana Supreme Court, alleging that the Basic Rule’s absence of a numerical limit was unconstitutionally vague and thus facially violated the due process clause of the Montana Constitution. The Court agreed, reasoning that “the average motorist … would have no idea of the speed [they] could operate … without violating Montana’s ‘[B]asic [R]ule.’”[16] Such questions were instead arbitrarily left to the subjective ad hoc” judgment of “policemen, judges, and juries.”[17]


In striking down the Basic Rule, the Court merely ruled that criminal sanctions for speeding were unconstitutional—absent prior warning that such speed violated the law. They did not preclude punishment for “reckless” or “careless” driving for the same conduct.[18] Thus, the Court did not require the state to create a numerical speed limit; they just could not otherwise impose criminal sanctions for mere speeding.


With the federal limit gone, states were again free to set speed limits as they saw fit. Thus, in 2015, Montana enacted an eighty MPH limit;[19] that was not the nation’s highest limit, though, as three years earlier, Texas enacted an eighty-five MPH limit on a rural stretch of highway.[20]


The German Autobahn is famous for its lack of speed limits, though that is not entirely accurate. There are static or dynamic speed limits covering thirty percent or so of the network, as well as the “advisory” eighty-one MPH limit in most of the remainder.[21] However, it is not strictly illegal to go faster in clear conditions.[22] Yet despite the lax restrictions, German traffic deaths are significantly lower than the United States and other nations with lower speed limits.[23]


When Autobahn statistics are viewed in conjunction with the data from Montana’s short “[B]asic [R]ule” stint, the question it begs is: why have speed limits—except in specific highways in a few Western states—not risen despite the significant increase in car safety over the past few decades?[24]


On the Autobahn, drivers must stay to the right unless passing—which drivers must exercise exclusively via the left lane.[25] Passing on the right will result in hefty fines.[26] Furthermore, German driver licenses are costly and difficult to obtain, resulting in exceedingly well-trained drivers who maintain higher speeds without compromising safety.[27] 


If American drivers can learn to drive in sync with one another—as the Germans have learned to do safely and efficiently—perhaps we can take advantage of the safety advancement in car design and maintain higher speeds while simultaneously lowering traffic incidents and fatalities. However, this will require a reframing of drivers’ education and habits.


Are stateside drivers ready to adapt and make necessary changes to their driving habits? Perhaps. It is certainly possible that they do not care that much and are satisfied to wait for Elon Musk’s perpetually promised just-around-the-corner autonomous driving breakthrough, which will make human driving superfluous.[28]

           

 Jacob Weinstein is a Staff Editor at CICLR.


[1] Scott Evans, How the Interstate Highway System Came to Be, Motor Trend (July 23, 2019), https://www.motortrend.com/features/the-interstate-highway-system [https://perma.cc/ARJ6-L9VA].

[2] Id.

[3] Tony Swan, Fast Facts: The 47,000-Plus-Mile U.S. Interstate System, Car & Driver (Dec. 27, 2017), https://www.caranddriver.com/features/a14499092/fast-facts-the-47000-plus-mile-us-interstate-system-feature [https://perma.cc/LZV9-K3KN].

[4] See Blake Z. Rong, The First Speed Limit Law Was Passed on This Day in 1901, Road And Track (May 21, 2016), https://www.roadandtrack.com/car-culture/news/a29272/the-first-speed-limit-law-was-passed-on-this-day-in-1901/.

[5] History, President Nixon Signs National Speed Limit into Law, https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/nixon-signs-national-speed-limit-into-law [https://perma.cc/3P4N-YEGH].

[6] Jad Mouawad & Simon Romero, Unmentioned Energy Fix: A 55 M.P.H. Speed Limit, N.Y. Times (May 1, 2005), https://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/01/business/unmentioned-energy-fix-a-55-mph-speed-limit.html [https://perma.cc/T43R-PC4H].

[7] Drive Against 55, Time (Apr. 27, 1981), https://content.time.com/time/subscriber/printout/0,8816,924705,00.html [https://perma.cc/S3ZU-KGSY].

[8] Tyce Palmaffy, Don’t Brake for Big Government, The Heritage Foundation (Aug. 29, 1996), https://www.heritage.org/government-regulation/commentary/ed082996-dont-brake-big-government [https://perma.cc/CGD2-PNR7].

[9] History, supra note 5.

[10] Id.

[11] Don Phillips, Federal Speed Limit, Set in 1974, Repealed, Wash. Post (Nov. 12, 1995), https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1995/11/29/federal-speed-limit-set-in-1974-repealed/d64a0059-d32e-4daa-92f4-887c6785ca57 [https://perma.cc/PZ7T-C7NM].

[12] Ralph Nader, Speed Limits, Nader (Dec. 5, 1995), https://nader.org/1995/12/05/speed-limits/ [https://perma.cc/ZEG4-FF2R].

[13] Robert E. King & Cass R. Sunstein, Doing Without Speed Limits, 79 B.U. L. Rev. 155, 155-57 (1999).

[14] Id. at 156.

[15] State v. Stanko, 974 P.2d 1132, 1135 (Mont. 1998).

[16] Id. at 1137.

[17] Id.

[18] Id. at 1138.

[19] Josh Jacquot, Montana Was Once the Last Bastion of Hot, Nasty, Bad-Ass Speed, Car & Driver (Dec. 29, 2017), https://www.caranddriver.com/features/a14511978/montana-was-once-the-last-bastion-of-hot-nasty-bad-ass-speed-feature/ [https://perma.cc/P8SE-LJC6].

[20] Grantlee W. Hohlbein, Life in the (Really) Fast Lane: Why Rural States Should Implement a High-Speed Minimum Limit on Additional Freeway Lanes, 48 Transportation L. J. 71, 76 (2022).

[21] Aaron Gold, A Concise History of Germany’s Autobahns, Motor Trend (Jul. 3, 2020), https://www.motortrend.com/features/autobahn-germany-history/ [https://perma.cc/5LSU-MTHN].

[22] Id.

[23] “In Germany, the estimated road traffic death rate per 100,000 people is 4.1, while in America the estimated road traffic death rate per 100,000 people is 12.4.” Hohlbein, supra note 20, at 80. Though note that injuries from accidents on the Autobahn tend to be more severe than those on American highways. Id.

[24] See generally Marcus Lu, This is How Car Safety Has Improved over the Past 60 Years, World Econ. Forum (Dec. 16, 2021), https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/12/how-safety-improved-over-60-years/ [https://perma.cc/335R-BQ2M] (presenting data on improvements to car safety).

[25] Harry Waring, Driving on the Autobahn: Speed Limits, Driving Tips and History, Auto Express (Dec. 9, 2021), https://www.autoexpress.co.uk/tips-advice/356727/driving-autobahn-speed-limits-driving-tips-and-history.

[26] Anthony Moss, The Autobahn: Germany’s Highway with No Speed Limit, Ultimate Driving Tours (Aug. 18, 2022), https://www.ultimatedrivingtours.com/autobahn-germany/ [https://perma.cc/29M3-PFGV].

[27] Hohlbein, supra note 20.

[28] Tesla first promised full New York to Los Angelos autonomous drive would be possible by the end of 2017. See Chris Davies, Tesla Makes Self-Driving Tech Standard on All Cars, Slash Gear (Oct. 19, 2016), https://www.slashgear.com/tesla-makes-self-driving-tech-standard-on-all-cars-20460830 [https://perma.cc/E7SL-GZRT]. Those promises have continued, and as of January 2024, full self-driving has yet to be released to the masses. See Jeremy Johnson, Tesla Inching Closer to Autonomy with "Next-Level" FSD Version 12, According to Elon Musk, Torque News (Jan. 3, 2024), https://www.torquenews.com/14335/tesla-inching-closer-autonomy-next-leve-fsd-version-12-according-elon-musk [https://perma.cc/G9DA-FGVJ].



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