By Jay Kim
One day during my term as House representative, I was asked to meet with the chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee about the national highway speed limit.
At that time, the national maximum speed limit on highways was 55 mph (88 kmh), thanks to a law passed by Congress in 1974 in response to the first oil crisis.
The law was based on the scientific reasoning that the 55 mph speed limit saves tens of thousands of barrels of oil a day and significantly reduces both car accidents and the loss of lives caused by those accidents.
One major reason for the law was that it would greatly reduce dependence on oil from the Middle East, which comprised 36 percent of the oil consumed by the U.S. However, it turned out this report was unrealistic, and many people broke the law in areas like the Midwest, where population density was low and the roads were wider.
Imposing a 55 mph speed limit on places like the desert highway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas was too ridiculous. Criticism was arising that the law was a kind of trap that made many people lawbreakers.
The chairman of the TIC, then, wanted me to lead the charge on a bill that would repeal the 55 mph speed limit law. He told me I was chosen because I majored in civil engineering and had specialization in highway engineering.
Although this was an issue that was very political and had nothing to do with civil engineering, I accepted his offer, and my name was put on the bill. The opposition to the bill was more severe than I expected. I was distressed over having to explain to my constituents the statistics that showed that lowering the speed limit reduced the number of lives lost by car accidents.
Almost all Congressional Democrats strongly opposed the bill. They criticized the Congressional Republicans, including me, who supported the bill, stating that Congress was responsible for the health and safety of the nation and this bill irresponsibly ignored that.
This meant that every time the bill was criticized, my name came up. I received hundreds of phone calls and letters a day about the bill; thankfully, more than half were in support, but the opposition was still rather strong.
Those of us supporting the bill claimed that the original aim of the current speed law was not to reduce traffic accidents, but was meant as an emergency response to the 1974 Arab oil embargo; also, it was not right for congressmen in Washington, ignorant of the local road situations nationwide, to pass a law that applied to the whole country.
However, this was not enough to placate the opposing public opinion. We then proposed a compromise that would leave speed limits in the hands of state government instead of removing the 55 mph speed limit at the national level, thinking this would bring some of the opposing House members to our side.
This brought on Republican opposition, criticizing that how fast one drives on a highway should be left to the individual decision of the driver, and changing the agent of speed limit imposition from federal to state governments would not cause any real change.
Some attacked the compromise by claiming that Americans’ ability of judgment was lower than Europeans, citing the lack of speed limit in Europe. Gradually, however, support for the compromise began to gain strength.
The far right-wing of the Republican Party takes the elimination of government involvement as its principle. They believe that ordinary people are wiser than the government, and that the economy should be left as a free market competition without interference.
They also think that the role of government is to discipline the companies that break laws and to prevent big corporations from seeking monopolies through mergers and acquisitions, ignoring the principles of the free market.
Ultimately, they believe politicians in Washington should only focus on making laws that help corporate business activity. In America, big corporations are not allowed to expand their businesses into other markets where they would make profits.
For example, Boeing concentrates only on the production of aircraft _ not because they lack the capital to run an insurance, construction, or baking company, but because the laws prohibit it. Boeing has been able to hold the top position in aircraft production for decades because of its concentration in that area.
But their being prohibited from expansion allows small business to concentrate on their own growth without any concern about big businesses cutting into their markets.
In the end, the bill to repeal the 55 mph speed limit law was brought before the T&I Committee after a fraught birthing process. After a hearing, it was voted on by a show of hands with reporters watching. Since the Democrats had the majority at the time, without the compromise leaving the speed limit to state governments, the bill would certainly fail to pass due to united opposition from the House Democrats.
The compromise passed through the T&I Committee with the help of some conservative House Democrats, and after two weeks, it was brought to a plenary session. After serious debates on the issue in that session, the speed limit law was finally nullified 21 years after its birth, and a new law leaving speed limit to state governments was born.
After that, each state followed its own laws. For example, the speed limit of the Las Vegas highway was raised to 75 mph, and many other highways was raised to 70 mph. Because of this new law, each state had to make and install hundreds of thousands of new road signs, and Congress included the several-hundred-million dollar budget for that in the law.
When the U.S. Congress passes a federal law, the federal government takes sole responsibility for the financial cost to implement the law. There is no case where the cost is dumped on state governments.
Jay Kim is a former U.S. congressman. He serves as chairman of the Washington Korean-American Forum. For more information, visit Kim’s website (www.jayckim.com).