When U.S. Sen. John Warner of Virginia revved up an idea to look into the possibility of reactivating a national speed limit on federal highways - reminiscent of the action taken during the energy crisis of the 1970s - he hit on a plan that has real merit in relation to today's crippling escalation of fuel prices and the nation's unhealthy reliance on foreign oil.
Slowing down makes sense on several fronts:
• Driving at even a few miles per hour less than 65 mph increases the fuel efficiency of vehicles and reduces gas and diesel consumption. Across the nation, trucking firms have instituted maximum speed policies of 62 mph.
One major national carrier that serves Oregon - which operates 4,500 trucks - estimates that dropping speeds by 3 mph will save the company 3.2 million gallons of diesel fuel per year. At an average commercial price of $4 per gallon for diesel, the reduced fuel consumption would save that company $12.8 million annually.
• Lower fuel consumption by trucking firms and motorists will increase national fuel supplies, which, at least theoretically, should nudge gas and diesel prices lower. (At least that's what we were taught in Economics 101).
• Less speed saves lives and prevents accidents.
• Burning less oil to move people and the nation's economy decreases our carbon footprint, which has the two-pronged benefit of improving the air we all breathe and helping reduce global warming. This is significant when considering that transportation accounts for approximately 34 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions.
But none of these benefits hold a candle to the best reason for cutting down speeds on U.S. interstates: Using a smaller amount of fossil fuels empowers Americans to say 'no' to the oil producers. It would be a truly American way of saying consumers are mad as hell, and they aren't going to take it anymore.
In their next breath, Oregonians should demand that their two U.S. senators - Republican Gordon Smith and Democrat Ron Wyden - take a serious look at Warner's proposal, and not just give it lip service. That's not the case just yet.
When we recently contacted Smith's office, an aide could only reply with a 'we're looking at it' response, but then went on to talk about equipping all vehicles with high-tech gadgets for monitoring fuel consumption.
Wyden, a longtime friend of environmental concerns, says he is eagerly awaiting the outcome of the study requested by Warner. But his comments also were noncommittal as to taking action to reduce travel speeds.
The idea of a national speed limit - with all of its benefits - will never gain the type of momentum it needs without congressional leadership. And as long as the freeway signs read '65,' motorists will continue to push the envelope to 70 mph or more.
Nobody really wants to slow down. But consider the tradeoffs of going a tad bit slower. With the price of fuel above $4 a gallon, and considering the need to reduce the environmental impact of burning oil products, the time has arrived for federal and personal action.
Slowing down on interstate freeways is a very good idea whose time has returned.